DIGGING DEEPER: Families plead with lawmakers for stricter drunken driving laws

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UPDATE 5:18 P.M. (WKOW) — Dozens of family members pleaded to lawmakers to pass stricter drunken driving laws to prevent fatalities on the roadways. The Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety held a public hearing to consider four OWI bills. Most of these bills have been introduced in the past as WKOW found many bills never get a chance to be heard in the legislature for a vote.

One bill would make first-time drunken driving a crime. Wisconsin is the only state where first-offense drunken driving is a civil violation and not a crime. It would make a first offense a misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail.

Chairman of the committee Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield) said it’s heartbreaking to listen to family members who’ve lost a loved one because of a drunk driver. He remains hopeful with bipartisan support legislation can make it for a vote in both chambers this year.

“My job is to get it through committee and I’m hoping will get these through the floor and them get them passed,” said Spiros. “It will be up to the Senate but I can’t really speak for them.”

Another bill would require those accused of a first offense OWI to personally appear in court. Since it’s currently a civil forfeiture, some counties allow offenders to send their attorney on their behalf.

Assembly bill 16 would impose a mandatory minimum of 18 months in jail for 5th or 6th OWI. This bill passed out of committee last year but was never called on the Assembly floor for a vote.

Lawmakers on the committee introduced a mandatory minimum of 5 years incarceration for committing homicide while driving drunk. The legislation would allow the judge to use discretion and sentence less than 5 years if the court finds it’s in the best interest of the community.

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UPDATE: The Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety held hearings today on four bills that would strengthen drunken driving laws in Wisconsin. The hearing comes in the wake of our Digging Deeper story earlier this month looking into the history of OWI laws in the state and why so many initiatives have fallen short.

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MADISON (WKOW) — Wisconsin is known to have the most lenient drunk driving laws in the country and every year lawmakers introduce legislation to curb it, but a majority of those bills go nowhere. Drunk drivers are punished with fines or criminal charges but some believe more needs to be done to deter repeat offenders from breaking the law again.

WKOW found since 2009, 112 bills were introduced in Wisconsin related to drunk driving, but of those, only 21 made it out of committee for a vote on the floor. Over the last ten years, only 12 of those proposals were signed into law under a Democratic and Republican Governor.

State Representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon) brought forward most of those bills, almost all aimed to increase penalties for first-time offenders. After showing Rep. Ott our findings he said he’s not giving up yet.

“Obviously (it’s) not as much progress as I would like to see,” said Ott. “I think there’s still too much drunk driving in Wisconsin, there shouldn’t be any drunk driving.”

Rep. Ott has served in the legislature for thirteen years and says he reintroduces the same bills each session hoping for a different outcome. Since 2009, 19 bills have been filed, some identical, all proposed to make a first or second OWI a crime.

Wisconsin is unique as it’s the only state who treats a first offense like a traffic ticket rather than a criminal offense. This year, Ott is reintroducing a proposal to make a first OWI offense a misdemeanor and if guilty, the driver would face a fine up to $500 or up to 30 days in jail.

“If the person doesn’t re-offend within a five year period that would result in a civil forfeiture, second offense 6-7 years later that would still be a criminal misdemeanor,” he said.

Ott believes it’s a reasonable reform as those who offend could be given a second chance to wipe a misdemeanor off their record.

For Marla Hall, the issue hits home after she lost her son Clenton in 2016 because of a drunk driver. Hall now focuses her time to change how Wisconsin punishes OWI offenses. She firmly believes progress over that last ten years is minimal and calls it a disappointment.

“If any of those (bills) would have been passed how many people would have been saved?” said Hall. “Could be one, ten, 30-40… I mean hundreds of people.”

Since her son’s death she’s turned her grief into action. Traveling across the state educating the public and making several appearances at the State Capitol facing her toughest critics.

“I’m hoping something is done, but my problem is… is Robin Vos going to do anything or Fitzgerald?” she said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald are the top two Republicans in the legislature who control what bills are called for a vote each session.  Hall believes both play a big role in how the law treats drunk driving offenses.

In a statement, Sen. Fitzgerald said when it comes to drunk driving, repeat offenders are the problem.

“That’s why I’m proud of the work Republicans in the Legislature have done expanding access to treatment and diversion programs through the courts that allow those who are convicted to get the help they need while paying their debt to society,” Fitzgerald wrote.

Fitzgerald is open to reviewing legislation to making a first OWI offense a misdemeanor but told WKOW he wants to review with his caucus first. He’s been an advocate of treatment alternatives and diversion court (TAD),  instead of placing monetary penalties on drunk driving offenders or jail time. Fitzgerald said these alternative programs are “proven effective” at treating substance abuse.

Rep. Ott said his goal is not to put more people behind bars or jeopardize someone’s future – but instead – for people to rethink driving drunk because of the consequences.

“I am not interested in seeing more people go to jail. I’m not interested in people paying more fines. I’m interested in having less people drive drunk,” said Ott.

Rep. Ott’s bill is supported by Governor Tony Evers. The governor also wants to find ways to make the first offense a more meaningful deterrent so people are less likely to re-offend or offend in the first place.

Ott said each year many of his colleagues don’t support his bill because of the financial burden it could have on law enforcement. The nonpartisan fiscal bureau estimates it would cost police departments $2.5 million in resources to handle an influx of OWI cases.

Hall said many families in her position often feel forgotten about. As years go by without seeing much change, she’s not giving up the fight yet.

“It’s terrible my life is changed forever. I will never be the same person it just, it’s the only thing I do is to keep going,” said Hall.

Emilee Fannon

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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