When the Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office earlier this month dropped hazing charges faced by three former Columbia College firefighters in return for guilty pleas to the lesser offense of disturbing the peace, it made sense.

The students reportedly forced a rookie firefighter to drink excess amounts of beer, then kicked and punched him. But all were in their early 20s and immersed in a firehouse culture where hazing had been an accepted practice for years.

Jeopardizing their chances at careers in firefighting because of serious but understandable indiscretion, we agree, would have been a draconian penalty.

But when three more college firefighters a week later escaped charges altogether because the prosecution's chief investigator was on a Bahamas cruise instead of at a trial that had been on the docket for months is inexcusable.

The second group of defendants, charged with binding rookie firefighters and spraying them with a fire hose, were in negotiations over a plea deal similar to that accepted by the first three. But when defense lawyers learned that Sheriff's Investigator Ken Diaz would not be around testify against their clients, the incentive to negotiate likely evaporated.

The prosecution, inexplicably, wasn't ready to present its case at a trial that had been scheduled in January.

Superior Court Judge Eric DuTemple, a former district attorney himself, was unreceptive to a motion for a delay.

"Three separate Superior Court calendars were moved around to accommodate this," DuTemple told prosecutor John Hansen, noting that witness subpoenas were issued in March and that Diaz had scheduled his Caribbean vacation in January. "Obviously it doesn't seem like it's very important to the Sheriff's Department if they didn't notify you."

The DA's Office still may appeal the judge's refusal to allow a delay, but the damage has been done. That it comes in a sensational case that made headlines for several weeks in early 2007 doesn't make it any easier to accept.

Hansen, to his credit, accepted blame: "It was my fault, and I take full responsibility," he said in court. The DA's office is reevaluating its procedures for tracking officer vacations and availability to testify, which is also commendable.

The defense attorneys, predictably, were elated.

"The right decision," one said.

Another spoke of "unfounded charges" and was happy the former suspects could now "go on and become the full-fledged firefighters they are trained to be."

But did these young guys get away with something?

Thanks to carelessness, poor communication and inadequate planning on the part of those we trust to enforce the law and prosecute offenders, we may never know.

Such official mistakes, particularly on high-profile cases, have been unusual. We hope that changes in internal procedures can make them even more rare, as they only undermine faith in the system and encourage those wanting to take advantage of it.

If there is a silver lining to what may be a murky conclusion to this case, it's that Columbia College and Tuolumne County have entered into a contract calling for more supervision, by both a battalion chief and a state manager, at the campus fire house.

This should once and for all end the degrading and humiliating hazing practices that have plagued the program in the past. This is perhaps the most desirable, necessary outcome of this long-running case.