The Wisconsin Assembly passed two bills this summer which, if approved by the state Senate, would impose stiffer penalties on individuals convicted of operating while intoxicated (OWI). The first bill would establish a mandatory minimum prison sentence of at least five years for drivers convicted of an OWI that resulted in a fatality. A driver facing such a charge under current law faces a considerable prison sentence, although a sentencing court has the discretion to impose jail time, probation or combination of the two. The new bill passed by the Assembly would take away all discretion and individual consideration of each defendant and lump them all together regardless of blood alcohol level, treatment needs and efforts, etc. The second bill would make it obligatory for drivers facing OWI charges, including all first-time offenders, to appear in court. Because a first-time OWI is currently not a criminal offense, the civil rules of procedure allowing an appearance by legal counsel for some court proceedings can occur.
Both bills were introduced by Rep. Jim Ott, a long-time advocate of criminalizing all first-time OWI cases and for stiffer OWI laws in the state, including mandatory minimum prison sentences. Also introduced again was a bill that would criminalize all first-time OWI offenses.
The two bills passed by the state Assembly in June (S.B. 7 and S.B. 8) must be voted out of a state Senate committee before heading to the full Senate for a vote. The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety heard testimony on a dozen drunk driving bills on September 4, 2019, but a date for a full vote by the Senate has not yet been set.
In addition to the two bills the Assembly passed, other bills that were proposed by advocates for stricter OWI penalties and are pending in the Senate would:
- Make a first OWI offense a criminal misdemeanor. (S.B. 9) Wisconsin remains the only state that classifies a first-time OWI as a civil offense and not a criminal one.
- Mandate an 18-month minimum prison sentence for fifth and sixth OWI offenses. (S.B. 6)
- Require all OWI offenders to install ignition interlock devices in their vehicles. These devices prohibit a motor vehicle’s engine from starting until the driver passes a breathalyzer test.
The proponents of greatly increased penalties and mandatory incarceration, regardless of the high cost to taxpayers, the lack of treatment options, and demonstration of measurable effectiveness as a deterrent, have made their message clear: the push for stronger measures, including longer and mandatory prison sentences, is not going to go away. These lobbyists and advocates will continue to put pressure on legislators to pass stricter laws, restrictions, and across-the-board heftier sentences for all OWI offenders. Wisconsin Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Van Wanggaard, who supports some of bills, stated that he does not support criminalizing first-time OWI offenses. “I think Wisconsin does a really good job,” said Sen. Wanggaard. “What we have is working.”
Contact an Experienced Milwaukee, WI Criminal Defense Attorney
An OWI charge in Wisconsin can result in serious penalties. At Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP, we are aware that people make mistakes. Our great experience in this area of law has shown us that cases involving driving under the influence are often complex, the forensic analysis sometimes in doubt and conviction and/or incarceration is often unwarranted. If you find yourself facing an OWI charge, do not wait. Our experienced Milwaukee OWI defense lawyers have the experience you need to protect your record, your license, and your job—not to mention avoiding possible jail time or prison. Call our office today at 414-271-1440 to schedule a consultation.