IN DEPTH: Lawmakers consider stricter OWI laws
Wisconsin lawmakers are attempting to address the states OWI laws.
Earlier this year, Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, drafted a series of bills to create stricter OWI laws. Those bills were read and referred for further review to the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Jan. 29.
The proposed legislation is made up of four bills. Senate Bill 9 would change first offense OWI from a civil forfeiture to a Class C misdemeanor with a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. The change would also include the option for the court to vacate the criminal conviction, changing it to a civil forfeiture if no re-offense happens in a five year period.
Senate Bill 7 would require those cited for a drunken driving offense to appear in court. For those who commit fifth and six offense OWIs, Senate Bill 6 would require a mandatory minimum 18 month prison sentence. Senate Bill 8 creates a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years for a person convicted of “homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle.”
A 2012 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows the percentage of people that reported driving after drinking too much during the last 30 days was 3.1 percent in Wisconsin. The national average was 1.9 percent.
Change in law
First offense in Wisconsin is currently ruled as a civil violation, unless a person under 16 years old is in the vehicle and bodily harm isn’t involved. After being arrested, the driver can be released to a responsible party.
If the driver has blood alcohol content of .15 or more, an ignition interlock must be installed and a sobriety program is required for one year. Fines range from $150 to $300 and a license revocation is in act for six to nine months, according to the Department of Transportation’s website. The minimum sentence for fifth or sixth offense OWI, a class G fenoly, is six months.
It isn’t the first time state legislature has tried to tackle amending the states OWI laws, especially with first offense. In 2015, a bill was proposed to make a first offense OWI a Class C misdemeanor with a $500 fine and 30 days imprisonment. The bill passed the Assembly but was rejected by the Senate.
Gov. Tony Evers said he is open to criminalizing first offense, according to the Associated Press. With new legislation taking over, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, has noticed there’s been a bit of a change in how legislature wants to address the state’s current OWI laws, even possibly criminalizing first offense.
“I think the entire legislation is open to the idea where 10 years ago that wasn’t the case,” he said. “But we’ve all seen the horrific stories. It happens all over the state.”
Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, is a co-sponsor of the four bills. He said he supports tougher OWI laws to create roads safer, believing it would make people choose other means of transportation under the influence rather than getting behind the wheel. He also believed strengthening drunken driving laws would hopefully motivate those struggling with alcohol addiction to seek help.
Some local lawmakers are torn on how to address the issue.
Assembly Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, said he supports tougher OWI laws but he “doesn’t want to put people in jail right away for long periods of time” because of the risk faced with job security.
“People make mistakes and I would like to keep them working, but if you are going to put them in jail for over a week they have lost a job,” he said. “All of the sudden they are finding another job and we’ve ruined the stability for the family and everything else. For many of them it is probably a mistake.”
Considine said lawmakers should look at lowering the legal blood alcohol content, that stands at .08.
Sauk Prairie Chief of Police Jerry Strunz said he’s noticed a “slight increase” in OWIs, mainly due to the department receiving a safety grant from the Department of Transportation that reimburses departments for overtime costs to put more officers on the road to catch drunken drivers.
Struz isn’t alone.
After decreasing the last couple of years, the amount of alcohol related crashes increased throughout the state. Primary data from the Department of Transportation from 2018 shows the total number of crashes in the state at 6,189, up from 6,151 in 2017. In 2016 and 2015, the numbers were 5,153 and 5,174.
After an increase in 2017, county statistics from the Department of Transportation preliminary numbers show the alcohol related crashes in Juneau and Columbia County decreased. Numbers for Sauk County increased from 72 to 91 in 2017 and remained the same for 2018 preliminary data.
Strunz, who has worked with the department for 29 years, said there has been some local efforts to try to address drunken driving. One of them is Bar Buddies, a safe ride program providing free rides home as an option for those too intoxicated to drive.
The program is implemented in Sauk Prairie, Reedsburg, Baraboo, Lodi and other areas of the region. Strunz said when the program first came into existence in 2012 the police department saw a 50 percent reduction in the number of OWI related arrests in the Sauk Prairie area.
Like Sauk Prairie, Reedsburg also has Bar Buddies and patrols with grants provided by the Department of Transportation.
When the Bar Buddies program started in Reedsburg in 2015, OWIs were reduced by 11 people, Becker said. The program provided 1,437 rides when it first began in 2016 and 3,151 in 2017. The program provided an average of 3,870 or 323 rides a month in 2018.
“(Bar Buddies) is being utilized to a very high degree,” he said. “Why there are still that many DUI’s? I don’t know?.”
Juneau County Sherriff Brent Oleson attributes the decrease to the Juneau County Tavern League’s Safe Ride program.
“In Juneau County, the tavern league really does push that,” Oleson said. “People, I guess, should also be making the responsible decisions and not putting themselves in that situation.”
The Dells-Delton Tavern League also has a Safe Ride program with about 50 members in the Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton area participating in the voucher system program with Dells Taxi. One of them is The Keg and Patio, owned by Keith Koehler who also serves as president of the Dells-Delton Tavern League and third district director for the Wisconsin Tavern League.
“I think it’s one of those things that have been great for the area getting people home safe is important,” Koehler said of the Safe Ride program.
Koehler said he does not see an issue with the current laws and an OWI can still be costly mentioning fines, attorneys and insurance costs and sobriety classes that could come with first offense. He said the tavern league has supported criminalizing a first offense if bodily harm or high blood alcohol content is involved.
Koehler said the tavern league has also supported legislation that would create stricter laws for multiple OWI offenses.
“If there was an issue, I think that it is should be visited but right now there is no issue,” Koehler said. “The average person does not deserve to be a criminal because of one extra beer or one extra cocktail. The tavern league is not fighting for people to be able to go out and drink and drive. I personally do not feel like there is a big issue going on with OWIs.”
Effect on courts
Sauk County District Attorney Kevin Calkins said he is for tougher OWI laws, but the proper amount of attorney resources need to be provided to make sure the courts can handle the case loads.
Calkins said four to five years ago the county was asked by the Department of Administration how criminalizing OWI laws would affect local courts at the county and municipal levels. Based on that information, the study found the county would need 1.25 more attorneys to handle the additional caseloads.
“That means also more court resources would be needed, the judges, Calkins said. “It’s just that many more criminal cases every year that would have to be processed and go to trial.”
Calkins said Sauk County has six attorneys. One of them is an attorney based on a federal grant for domestic abuse prosecutions that will be around for two more years. The last case study said the county needed at least seven attorneys.
“We’ve been understaffed for as long as I can remember,” Calkins said. “I just hope they understand what that cost is statewide with the additional number of prosecutors that would be needed and the additional number of judges that would be needed to handle this increase in case load.”
Considine said another focus for lawmakers should be funding for alcohol and treatment courts.
“We don’t change behavior by punishing people. We change behavior by helping them get better,” he said.
“If you’re not dealing with the underlying problem the person just goes back to drinking when they are drunk they make bad decisions,” Calkins said.
Oleson said Juneau County Human Services currently provides alcohol counseling. He said the county recently teamed up with Adams County for a drug court program to help provide treatment to repeat offenders and recently received a grant for the program.
“We’re trying to take what works in other counties and implement it here,” Oleson said. “Hopefully we can break that cycle.”