Crim­i­nal­iz­ing first-time OWIs is a tough sell, but Ott vows to try

Law­maker has worked years for the change

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Milwaukeewisconsin - Todd Rich­mond

MADI­SON – With a new Demo­cratic ally in the gov­er­nor’s of­fice, a hand­ful of Repub­li­can law­mak­ers are push­ing for Wis­con­sin to join the rest of the coun­try and crim­i­nal­ize first-of­fense drunk­endriv­ing.

On paper it might look like a can’tmiss bi­par­ti­san ini­tia­tive, but it’s not that easy in a state where beer is so much a part of the cul­ture that the Ma­jor League Base­ball team is called the Brew­ers.

Pow­er­ful Repub­li­can op­po­nents are al­ready lin­ing up against the idea, call­ing it im­prac­ti­cal and too ex­pen­sive.

“We want to feel like we’re re­ally be­ing strict on drunk driv­ers,” said Repub­li­can state Sen. Van Wang­gaard, chairman of the Se­nate ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee and an op­po­nent of crim­i­nal­iz­ing first of­fense.

“But it’s not about pun­ish­ing that per­son that made that poor choice. It’s about di­rect­ing them to make good choices.”

Wis­con­sin’s love af­fair with booze dates to state­hood. Mil­wau­kee has served as home to some of the coun­try’s big­gest brew­ers, in­clud­ing Pabst, Sch­litz, Miller and Blatz.

The Prince­ton Re­view in 2017 rated the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son as the school with the most beer. And last year the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol re­leased a sur­vey in which one in four Wis­con­sin re­spon­dents re­ported binge-drink­ing at least once in the past month, the sec­ond-high­est rate among the states be­hind only North Dakota.

Along with all the drink­ing has come car­nage on the roads.

The state ranks 20th in pop­u­la­tion but has landed among the top 15 states for drunken-driv­ing ar­rests ev­ery year from 2005 through 2017, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est sta­tis­tics com­piled by Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ers.

From 2005 through 2009 the state ranked in the top 10 for op­er­at­ing while in­tox­i­cated ar­rests.

In 2015 alone, nearly 200 peo­ple were killed and an ad­di­tional 2,900 were in­jured in al­co­hol-re­lated crashes in the state, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est state Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion data. At a time when some states have talked about low­er­ing their OWI limit — Utah just set its thresh­old at a na­tion-low of 0.05 per­cent blood-al­co­hol con­tent — Wis­con­sin re­mains the only state in the na­tion that treats a first of­fense as a civil vi­o­la­tion akin to a speed­ing ticket rather than a crime.

For years, Repub­li­can state Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Al­berta Dar­ling have been propos­ing leg­is­la­tion aimed at drunken driv­ing.

Ott has been on a decade-long quest af­ter a drunken driver killed con­stituent Judy Jenk­ins’ preg­nant daugh­ter and 10-year-old grand­daugh­ter in 2008. Ott promised her he would do ev­ery­thing he could to crack down on drunken driv­ing.

The Assem­bly over­whelm­ingly passed its 2013 pro­posal to make a first of­fense a mis­de­meanor, but the Se­nate did noth­ing with it.

The pow­er­ful Tav­ern League of Wis­con­sin was of­fi­cially neu­tral on the bill, but state agen­cies es­ti­mated it would cost more than $5 mil­lion to hire enough prose­cu­tors and pub­lic de­fend­ers to han­dle the in­flux of new court cases.

En­ter newly elected Demo­cratic Gov. Tony Evers. He made waves dur­ing his cam­paign when he said he’s open to crim­i­nal­iz­ing first of­fenses. He re­peated it days be­fore his in­au­gu­ra­tion.

“We have to find ways to make that first of­fense more mean­ing­ful to the of­fend­ers so they don’t of­fend again or don’t of­fend the first time,” Evers said. “Whether that’s mak­ing it a felony or not, I’m not sure.”

The next day, Ott and Dar­ling rein­tro­duced their mea­sure to make a first of­fense a mis­de­meanor. They tweaked it so of­fend­ers could seek ex­punge­ment

Ott has been on a decade-long quest af­ter a drunken driver killed con­stituent Judy Jenk­ins’ preg­nant daugh­ter and 10-year-old grand­daugh­ter in 2008. Ott promised her he would do ev­ery­thing he could to crack down on drunken driv­ing. The Assem­bly over­whelm­ingly passed its 2013 pro­posal to make a first of­fense a mis­de­meanor, but the Se­nate did noth­ing with it.

if they avoid a sec­ond of­fense for five years.

Even with Evers in their cor­ner, the mea­sure ap­pears doomed.

“It would take leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship to change their mind-set on crim­i­nal­iz­ing first of­fense,” said Frank Har­ris, MADD’s direc­tor of state gov­ern­ment af­fairs. “It de­pends on if the tav­ern league would al­low them to do it.”

Scott Stenger, the league’s chief lob­by­ist, didn’t re­turn mes­sages. Wang­gaard called the bill a non-starter. Crim­i­nal­iz­ing a first of­fense would sad­dle peo­ple with a crim­i­nal record that could af­fect their job prospects for five years, he said.

“Do we want to de­stroy peo­ple’s lives with a no­ta­tion on their record that’s go­ing to keep their op­por­tu­ni­ties down to noth­ing be­cause they made one mis­take?” Wang­gaard, a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer, said.

Ott ac­knowl­edged that the bill’s prospects look dim.

“We’ve got to try,” he said. “We just keep see­ing these ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions (on the roads). This just keeps go­ing on. All we can do is put the leg­is­la­tion out there and do the best we can to get it passed. It at least opens up the dis­cus­sion.”

Ott

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