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Proposed legislation looks to make first-offense OWI a crime in Wisconsin

La Crosse, Wis. (WXOW) – Wisconsin is the only state where first-offense drunk driving is a civil violation, not a crime. Something two Republican legislators in Madison hope to change.

The package of bills including the OWI legislation currently circulates the capitol in search of co-sponsorship. The proposed law would make first-time offenses misdemeanors punishable by up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail.

“Our goal is really to help make our roads safer,” Representative Jim Ott of Wisconsin’s 23rd Assembly District continues, “I would like to see less drunk driving and one of the ways we can do that is, ya know, tougher penalties are a deterrent.”

Rep. Ott and Senator Alberta Darling began circulating the proposal for co-sponsors on Thursday.

While first-time offenders don’t currently have to worry about criminal charges, possible punishment under existing law still comes with consequences.

“If it’s the lowest level it’s approaching $1,000, there’s a revocation of your driver’s license,” Partner at Johns Flaherty & Collins, SC Joe Veenstra explains. 

“You can get an occupational license and there’s some other alcohol assessments and things of that nature that you have to get in order to get your license back.”

At the moment, first time OWI offenders are not entitled to public defense. Under the proposed legislation the state would have to supply one when needed.

“The number of criminal cases on the docket would increase. Prosecutors would have more OWIs on their files. These would all be handled in the circuit courts because municipal courts don’t handle crimes,” Veenstra elaborates.

If the bill fails to find co-sponsors in Madison, politicians involved plan to continue working to make Wisconsin roads safe.

“It’s important that we keep the discussion going on this topic. That we keep awareness of the fact that, again, it’s dangerous to get drunk to the point of being impaired and then getting behind the wheel. There are alternatives to that,” Rep. Ott finishes.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s website, Alcohol-related crashes killed 190 people across the state in 2015. There were approximately 24,000 convictions for drunk driving that same year.

Peter Lenz

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