Why Wisconsin Has Weak Laws on Drunken Driving
Legislators reject tougher penalties, even for repeat offenders. First of a series.
Making matters worse
In all, the Legislature’s 2013-14 session saw the introduction of more than a dozen bills to toughen state OWI laws. The bills drew almost no opposition from lobby groups or at hearings, aside from the Wisconsin Counties Association, which pegged them as “unfunded mandates on county taxpayers.”
Several bills passed the Assembly in amended form, including one to make all fourth-offense drunken driving a felony. But, with Fitzgerald as gatekeeper, only one penalty-toughening bill received a Senate vote. And that bill, introduced after the initial package by Darling and Ott, had unintended consequences.
The bill, which passed, created mandatory minimum penalties for drivers who cause substantial injury or death in their seventh or subsequent OWI offense. But a drafting error axed existing law allowing charges for simple injury crashes.
“It made (matters) worse,” Carpenter said. “Not only didn’t we pass stiffer penalties, the bill we did pass mucked things up.” He anticipates the need for corrective legislation next session.
Other failed GOP-sponsored bills would have prevented those who lose driving privileges due to OWI offenses from buying or leasing cars and barred those required to install sobriety-checking ignition interlock devices on their own cars from driving any vehicle without it.
Also going down in flames were Democrat-sponsored bills to require interlock devices for all OWI offenses, impound the vehicle registration plates of repeat offenders, and make first-offense drunken driving a crime in Wisconsin, as it is in every other state.
Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, whose sister was killed by a repeat-offense drunken driver in 1990, introduced the impoundment bill and calls expanding the use of ignition interlock devices “a no-brainer, ‘cause you put the cost on the offender and it seems to change people’s behavior.”
But Zepnick declined to co-sponsor bills to impose a mandatory minimum and is ambivalent about making first-offense OWI a crime, given that “over 70 percent of first-time offenders do not repeat.” (On the other hand, three-quarters of the state’s OWI-related crashes causing deaths or serious injuries involve offenders with no prior convictions.)
In many cases, Zepnick said, the problem is not that the state’s laws lack teeth but that judges are disinclined to bite. He rattled off examples of drunken drivers who killed others and got off with light sentences, such as 60 days with work release.
“I know people in Milwaukee who steal from a gas station or sell a couple bags of pot who get more time than that,” he said.
Getting to the root
Carpenter believes all of the GOP-backed bills that passed the Assembly would have easily passed the Senate, had Fitzgerald heeded his appeals to bring them to a vote. He suspects Fitzgerald acted to protect a few lawmakers with election-related worries about making enemies or losing friends, who felt “I can’t in any way get the Tavern League mad at me.”
But Fitzgerald, while hailing Wisconsin’s “vibrant” beer and alcohol service industries, said the Tavern League’s influence was not the reason for the bills’ failure. The Senate moved instead “to combat drunk driving at the root of the problem by targeting substance abuse with a program that is proven effective.”
A bill passed unanimously late in the session hiked state spending on court-based substance abuse treatment and diversion programs by $3 million over two years. Fitzgerald said this approach has helped curb recidivism “while allowing offenders to get their addiction issues in check and go on to have productive lives.”
The Tavern League, which has backed tougher OWI penalties, also urges addressing drunken driving as a problem of addiction. “You can’t just say, throw the person in jail and two years from now everything will be fine,” Stenger said.
During this period, the two groups have directed more than $80,000 in campaign contributions to state candidates, including $9,750 to Fitzgerald.