Wisconsin state law makers are continuing the trend of proposing bills that call for more stringent driving under the influence laws.
Under current law in Wisconsin, operating while intoxicated, or “OWI” as it’s called in Wisconsin, is a civil violation with the first offense subject only to a fine of no less than $150 and no more than $300. A second offense will only have increased penalties if the person has committed the OWI within ten years of the first offense or if the OWI offense caused death of great bodily harm to another.
A bi-partisan plan of bills was introduced, with one of the bills pushing to make the first offense a misdemeanor and would call for a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for up to 30 days, or both. This same bill will also subject a second offense to increased penalties regardless of the offense occurring within ten years of the first OWI-related offense.
There is another bill within this plan that calls for a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years for committing a homicide while driving drunk. Current penalties include imprisonment of up to 25 years if a Class D felony and up to 40 years if a driver is found to have had prior convictions and thus charged with a Class C felony. However, neither one of these penalties have a minimum imprisonment limit.
A public hearing at Wisconsin’s Capitol was held to address several bills, including those mentioned above. The hearing included testimony from families who have lost family and loved ones through the actions of drunk drivers and many of them have called for stricter punishments for under the influence offenders.
In comparison to other states that have already categorized driving under the influence as a criminal offense, this change may seem fairly minor and certainly a long time coming. If you recall one of our earlier posts about states with the most DUIs (States with the Most Drunk Drivers), Wisconsin clocked in at number 4. It is quite possible that part of the reason why their numbers are so high in the survey is that their citizens have less incentive to refrain from getting behind the wheel after a few too many drinks. Republican Representative Jim Ott, who authored the bills, was quoted “I think it would be a deterrent effect. I think if people recognized and were taking drunk driving more seriously in Wisconsin than we have in the past, that it would cause people to not drive drunk and be a first offender.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation there were 25,734 OWI citations in 2015, 93% of which were found guilty. In theory, categorizing a first offense OWI as a criminal act and processing a drunk driver’s sentence as such should be a deterrent and keep those who are considering the additional drink from climbing behind the driver seat. However, I am fairly certain that there is a significant number of people who didn’t want to deal with civil action and simply plead guilty since the penalty was only a fine. However, if that were to be a criminal mark on your record, people will undoubtedly start to pay a little more attention to the seriousness of the situation. Consequently, criminal defense attorneys can apply their expertise to make sure that the arrests are legitimate before allowing their clients to plead guilty to what is now a criminal action with more serious consequences.
There is also a major question that will need to be addressed should these bills go forward: Is Wisconsin’s court system actually prepared for this change? The bills still have to go through another group of lawmakers before being presented to the floor for a vote, but if they do go through, there are changes to the court system and the entire criminal process that may make things difficult in other ways.
Because even first offenses will be considered criminal, all OWI cases will need to start going through the District Attorney’s office. If there is a lack of sufficient personnel to handle such an increased caseload at the District Attorney’s office, the delays in charges being filed that would result is likely inevitable. Not only that, are the jail systems prepared to handle the increase for if offenders as a result of the new laws?
Time will only tell what happens with the new laws, whether they get passed, and, if so, what effect it will have on deterrence, the court system, and the district attorney’s office.