Wisconsin Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) laws are some of the most lenient in the country. While the overall rate of OWI-related accidents has gone down nationally, many unnecessary injuries and deaths still occur, particularly in states like Wisconsin with lenient laws. Lawmakers in Wisconsin say these deaths and accidents are attributable to one facet of the Wisconsin OWI law. Now, they’re seeking to change that law and help save lives. Here’s what Wisconsin drivers need to know.
Current OWI laws in Wisconsin are among the most lenient in the country. For example, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where a first-time OWI offense is not considered a criminal act. First-time OWI offenders are fined a minimum of $150 and will have their license suspended for six months, but no criminal charges will be filed. In contrast, Illinois’ minimum fine for first-time offenders is $750, and criminal charges are filed. However, the law causing the most trouble is the one allowing officers to release someone in their custody for an OWI offense if a “responsible adult” picks them up. After an incident in August of 2018, that law has been called into question.
In August of 2018, a Wisconsin nurse was driving home when she was struck and nearly killed by a drunk driver. Upon further review, it turned out that the driver who hit her had been in custody earlier that same night for drinking and driving. Thanks for the current WI law, he was released — while still intoxicated — to a “responsible adult”, in this case his mother, who promised not to let him drive for 12 hours. She did not keep her word. A half an hour after his release, he was back behind the wheel, ran a red light, and hit the nurse. State Representatives Samantha Kerkman and Jim Ott want to prevent situations like this — which happen far too often — by disallowing OWI suspects to leave custody while they’re still intoxicated.
This isn’t the first time Kerkman has tried to pass bills that would reform current OWI laws in Wisconsin. In March of 2018 she tried to pass a bill that would make license reinstatement for convicted OWI offenders more difficult to obtain. The March bill would also have made license revocation for convicted OWI offenses easier to secure. Four years before that, she tried to secure mandatory court appearances for first-time offenders, hoping this would communicate the severity of their actions. Both of these bills failed to pass, leaving some to wonder if this bill is doomed to the same fate. However, Kerkman hopes that by using precedent and cases like the nurse’s she will be able to secure victory this time.
Many are curious as to how this new law, if passed, would be enforced. The only major changes are likely to be that OWI offenders who could previously be released while intoxicated will now have to stay in jail until they are sober, whether or not they have a “responsible adult” to pick them up. However, if this law passes it might pave the way for new legislation that would follow the example of most other states and criminalize first-time offenders. Kerkman wants to crack down on repeated offenders, as well, indicating that this new law could mean Wisconsin drivers with OWI convictions on the books will need to be extra careful.
Whether or not this law passes, having an OWI charge on your record is never a good thing. It’s particularly important to handle any OWI charges in Wisconsin now since this new law would crack down on repeat offenders. Regardless, if you’ve been charged with an OWI, it’s important to obtain legal help as soon as possible. Be sure to contact an experienced and qualified Wisconsin DUI attorney to help you navigate the legal waters, fight for your rights, and obtain the best possible outcome.