Wis. committee OKs drunken driving bills

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Associated Press
Friday, September 13, 2013

MADISON, Wis. — A legislative committee approved a package of bills Thursday that would impose tougher sanctions on drunken drivers, but the proposals’ fate looks uncertain at best. 

Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, have introduced a package of bills they say are designed to show lawmakers are serious about curbing drunken driving. Wisconsin’s drunken driving laws are notoriously lax; the state is the only one that doesn’t criminalize a first offense, treating it instead as a civil violation similar to a speeding ticket.

But the bills could come with hefty price tags down the road. Prosecutors, public defenders and prison officials estimate the proposals would cost tens of millions of dollars to enforce.

The bills would change third and fourth offenses from misdemeanors to felonies; impose mandatory sentences ranging from six months in jail to three years in prison for drunken drivers who injure someone; impose a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for drunken drivers who kill someone; impose mandatory court appearances; and allow authorities to seize drunken drivers’ cars. 

One measure would have made a first offense a misdemeanor if the driver’s blood-alcohol level is 0.15 percent or higher. Wisconsin’s legal limit is 0.08 percent. But Ott backed off on that Thursday. He amended the bill to erase that provision but added language that would make all second offenses misdemeanors and all fourth offenses felonies. 

Under current Wisconsin law, a second offense committed more than 10 years after a first offense is considered a first offense; fourth offenses committed more than five years after a third are misdemeanors. Ott said he made the change because of potential problems with making a first offense a crime in high blood-alcohol cases but not in others. He said he didn’t want to create headaches for prosecutors.

He also tweaked the mandatory sentences for injury, ratcheting the minimum sentence down from six months to 30 days. He said the move was meant to conform with mandatory 30-day minimums for injuries he proposed in another bill earlier this year.

The committee’s three Democrats said repeatedly said they want to curb drunken driving. But they complained the bills don’t lay out any money for prosecutors and public defenders to handle more cases or for jails and prisons to handle more inmates. 

Still, all the bills passed unanimously except for the two mandatory sentence measures. Reps. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, and Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, voted against mandatory sentences for causing injuries; Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, joined Hebl and Goyle in voting against mandatory sentences in drunken driving homicides. They argued the measures strips judges of their sentencing discretion in favor of a one-size-fits-all approach. 

“I don’t want the judges to be just puppets,” Hebl said.

Ott countered that judges are letting drunken drivers who cause horrendous crashes off too easily. Victims’ families would probably argue the mandatory sentences in the bills are too light, he said.

Committee approval clears the way for votes in the full Assembly. But Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, hasn’t committed any support or indicated the bills would come to the floor. His spokeswoman said in an email Thursday that Vos is still reviewing the proposals.

Ott and Darling introduced the bills seven months ago.

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