There's been a good deal of commotion about a pair of teenage Costa Mesa hikers who went missing in South County after Easter. Though the hikers were rescued after a five-day search, and drugs were allegedly found in one of their cars, the truly unfortunate part of this story is that a rescue worker trying to help them suffered serious injuries.

The tab for the rescue effort grew to about $160,000. The Orange County Sheriff's Department opted not to seek reimbursement for the assistance, but the Board of Supervisors decided to examine whether it could on behalf of the taxpayers. The supervisors, however, found no law that would allow them to collect.

Now some are clamoring for a law that would give the county the power to bill rescued lawbreakers. While we empathize with such sentiments, and on some base level agree with them, we don't think such a law is a sound idea. Defining which types of crimes warrant a bill for rescue and which do not is a slippery slope.

The county's public safety officers are employed to provide assistance to all of us, regardless of whether we've made good or bad choices. They are sworn to protect the responsible and the irresponsible. Right or wrong, that's our utilitarian system, and we collectively fund it through taxes.

Also, the courts, criminal and civil, can levy fines or require restitution when one party harms another and, for reasons of due process, they remain the right venue to levy such penalties.

We realize that our position is far from perfect, that it is absent the satisfaction that comes with making sinners pay for their sins. But as a society, we help those who need help, whether their problems are acts of God or self-created. And, either way, we are all required to pick up the tab.