2 Wisconsin Republicans want harsher law against first-time drunken drivers

File photo. (WLUK image)

(WLUK) -- A pair of Wisconsin Republicans want tougher drunk driving laws.

They’ve introduced a bill to make first-time offenses a crime.

The idea may also have some traction with Democrats in Madison.

“There is a percentage of the population that will be more cautious if it’s criminal,” said Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett.

Wisconsin remains the only state where a first drunken driving offense is only a civil violation and not a crime. But under a proposal from State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and State Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, that could change.

“We continue to have too many drunk driving crashes in Wisconsin, and too many innocent people being injured or killed by drunk drivers, so I think it’s very important that we address the issue in toughing up our laws,” Ott said.

The proposed bill would make the first-time violation a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, but Ott said that is not the driving force behind the bill.

“My goal is not to have people pay higher fines or have more people incarcerated,” he said. “I want to see less people driving drunk, in which case our roads would be safer for everyone.”

Law enforcement agencies say they’d support anything that helps keep drunk drivers off the streets.

Organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving agree.

“We need everything in the toolbox for law enforcement to stop drunk drivers and drugged impaired drivers, for that matter, and this is one of the main tools that Wisconsin lawmakers need to equip our law enforcement and prosecutors with,” director of state government affairs for MAAD Frank Harris said.

Gov.-Elect Tony Evers says he supports criminalizing first time drunken driving offenses.

But for those who’d then be tasked with taking on those OWI cases, it wouldn’t exactly lighten the load.

“If OWI-first becomes criminal, that’s something that we’ll have to take on in district attorneys’ offices, and accommodations will have to be made, and that just simply means some other things will probably have to not be prosecuted,” Gossett said.

“I’m certainly more than happy to give more resources to our district attorneys, so that they can deal with the case, whether it’s OWI cases or any other case in the state,” Ott said.

Under the bill, a misdemeanor violation would also drop down to a civil infraction, that is, if the person doesn’t reoffend within five years.

Ott said that means if a person really changes their behavior, they’d actually be given a second chance.

Repr. Ott said if all goes as planned, this could be signed into law sometime in May or early June.

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