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IN DEPTH: Lawmakers consider stricter OWI laws

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Wisconsin lawmakers are attempting to address the state's lax drunken driving laws.

Earlier this year, Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, drafted a series of bills to create stricter OWI laws. Those bills were read Jan. 29 and referred for further review to the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.

The proposed legislation is made up of four bills. Senate Bill 9 would change first-offense OWI from a civil forfeiture to a Class C misdemeanor with a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. The change also would include the option for a court to vacate the criminal conviction and change it to a civil forfeiture if no additional offenses occur in a five-year period.

Senate Bill 7 would require those cited for a drunken driving offense to appear in court. For those who commit fifth and six offense OWIs, Senate Bill 6 would require a mandatory minimum 18-month prison sentence. Senate Bill 8 creates a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years for a person convicted of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle.

A 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the percentage of people who reported driving after drinking too much during the last 30 days was 3.1 percent in Wisconsin. The national average was 1.9 percent.

Change in law

First-offense drunken driving in Wisconsin is a civil violation, unless a person under 16 years old is in the vehicle or bodily harm is involved. After an arrest, the driver can be released to a responsible party. No other state in the nation treats the offense as a civil matter.

If the driver has blood alcohol content of .15 or more, an ignition interlock must be installed and a sobriety program is required for one year. Fines range from $150 to $300 and a driver's license is revoked for 6-9 months, according to the Department of Transportation’s website. The minimum sentence for fifth or sixth offense OWI, a class G fenoly, is six months.

The Legislature previously has sought to toughen the state's drunken driving laws, particularly the punishment for a first offense. In 2015, a bill was proposed to make a first-offense OWI a Class C misdemeanor with a $500 fine and 30 days imprisonment. The bill passed the Assembly, but was rejected by the Senate.

Gov. Tony Evers said he is open to criminalizing first offense, according to the Associated Press. With a new administration taking over, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, has noticed a bit of a change in how the Legislature wants to address the state’s current OWI laws, even possibly criminalizing first offense.

“I think the entire Legislature is open to the idea, where 10 years ago that wasn’t the case,” he said. “But we’ve all seen the horrific stories. It happens all over the state.”

Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, is a co-sponsor of the four bills. He said he supports tougher OWI laws to create safer roads, and believes the legislation would make people choose other means of transportation when under the influence rather than getting behind the wheel. He also said stronger drunken driving laws could help motivate those struggling with alcohol addiction to seek help.

Other lawmakers are torn on the issue.

Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, said he supports tougher OWI laws, but he “doesn’t want to put people in jail right away for long periods of time” because it could cause them to lose their job.

“People make mistakes and I would like to keep them working, but if you are going to put them in jail for over a week they have lost a job,” he said. “All of the sudden they are finding another job and we’ve ruined the stability for the family and everything else. For many of them it is probably a mistake.”

Considine said lawmakers should consider reducing legal blood alcohol content ratio that would trigger an OWI from .08.

More arrests

Sauk Prairie Police Chief Jerry Strunz said he’s noticed a “slight increase” in OWIs, mainly due to a safety grant from the Department of Transportation that reimburses departments for overtime costs to put more officers on the road to catch drunken drivers.

Struz isn’t alone.

After decreasing the last couple of years, the number of alcohol-related crashes increased throughout the state has risen. Preliminary data from the Department of Transportation in 2018 shows the total number of alcohol-related crashes in the state at 6,189, up from 6,151 in 2017. In 2016 and 2015, the numbers were 5,153 and 5,174.

After an increase in 2017, county statistics from the Department of Transportation preliminary numbers show alcohol-related crashes in Juneau and Columbia County decreased. Numbers for Sauk County increased from 72 to 91 in 2017 and remained the same for 2018 preliminary data.

Strunz, who has worked with the department for 29 years, said there have been some local efforts to try and address drunken driving. One of them is Bar Buddies, a safe-ride program that provides free rides home as an option for those too intoxicated to drive.

The program is available in Sauk Prairie, Reedsburg, Baraboo, Lodi and other areas of the region. Strunz said when the program first started in 2012, the police department saw a 50 percent reduction in the number of OWI-related arrests in the Sauk Prairie area.

Like Sauk Prairie, Reedsburg also has Bar Buddies and patrols with grants provided by the Department of Transportation.

Ride options

When the Bar Buddies program started in Reedsburg in 2015, OWI citations declined by 11, Becker said. The program provided 1,437 rides when it first began in 2016 and 3,151 in 2017. The program provided an average of 3,870 or 323 rides a month in 2018.

“(Bar Buddies) is being utilized to a very high degree,” Becker said. “Why there are still that many DUIs? I don’t know.”

Juneau County Sheriff Brent Oleson attributes a decrease in drunken driving offenses to the Juneau County Tavern League’s Safe Ride program.

“In Juneau County, the tavern league really does push that,” Oleson said. “People, I guess, should also be making the responsible decisions and not putting themselves in that situation.”

The Dells-Delton Tavern League also has a Safe Ride program with about 50 businesses in the Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton area participating in a voucher system program with Dells Taxi. One of them is The Keg and Patio, owned by Keith Koehler who also serves as president of the Dells-Delton Tavern League and third district director for the Wisconsin Tavern League.

“I think it’s one of those things that have been great for the area,” Koehler said of the Safe Ride program. "Getting people home safe is important."

Koehler said he does not see an issue with the current laws and said an OWI still can be costly due to fines, attorneys and insurance costs and sobriety classes that can come with a first offense. He said the tavern league has supported criminalizing a first offense if bodily harm or high blood-alcohol content is involved.

Koehler said the tavern league has supported legislation that would create stricter laws for multiple OWI offenses.

“If there was an issue, I think that it should be visited, but right now there is no issue,” Koehler said. “The average person does not deserve to be a criminal because of one extra beer or one extra cocktail. The tavern league is not fighting for people to be able to go out and drink and drive. I personally do not feel like there is a big issue going on with OWIs.”

Effect on courts

Sauk County District Attorney Kevin Calkins said he supports tougher OWI laws, but said additional resources need to be provided to ensure the courts can handle the caseloads.

Calkins said five years ago the county was asked by the Department of Administration how criminalizing OWI laws would affect local courts at the county and municipal levels. Based on that information, the study found the county would need 1.25 more attorneys to handle the additional work.

“That means also more court resources would be needed," Calkins said. “It’s just that many more criminal cases every year that would have to be processed and go to trial.”

Sauk County has six prosecuting attorneys. Calkins said one of them is funded through a federal grant for domestic abuse prosecutions that will be around for two more years. The last case study said the county needed at least seven attorneys.

“We’ve been understaffed for as long as I can remember,” Calkins said. “I just hope they understand what that cost is statewide with the additional number of prosecutors that would be needed and the additional number of judges that would be needed to handle this increase in caseload.”

Seeking change

Rep. Considine said another focus for lawmakers should be to provide funding for alcohol and treatment courts.

“We don’t change behavior by punishing people. We change behavior by helping them get better,” he said.

Calkins agreed.

“If you’re not dealing with the underlying problem, the person just goes back to drinking,” Calkins said. "When they are drunk, they make bad decisions."

Oleson said Juneau County Human Services currently provides alcohol counseling. He said the county recently teamed up with Adams County for a drug court program to help provide treatment to repeat offenders and recently received a grant for the program.

“We’re trying to take what works in other counties and implement it here,” Oleson said. “Hopefully we can break that cycle.”

Lindsay Whitehurst and Todd Richmond of the Associated Press and Sauk Prairie Eagle Reporter Autumn Luedke contributed to this report.

Follow Erica Dynes on Twitter @EDynes_CapNews or contact her at 608-393-5346.