Jeramey Jannene

Donovan’s Assembly Bills Hike Reckless Driving Fees, Allow Impounding Vehicles

Former alder's first bills, with city officials' support, are being fast-tracked at Capitol.

By - Mar 1st, 2023 07:02 am
Milwaukee Police Department officer pulls over a vehicle in Bay View. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Police Department officer pulls over a vehicle in Bay View. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee’s effort to combat reckless driving could get a substantial boost from two pending state law changes introduced by newly-elected State Rep. Robert Donovan (R-Greenfield), a former Milwaukee alderman.

“Criminals sadly don’t fear the repercussions of their actions, and have even publicly admitted so,” said Donovan during a public hearing Tuesday at the Wisconsin State Capitol. He said his proposal would double the fines and jail time, as well as make it easier to impound vehicles. “I think that is the message that needs to be sent. ‘We will no longer tolerate it.'”

The bills are supported by the Milwaukee Common Council and Mayor Cavalier Johnson, as well as the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, AAA Wisconsin and several law enforcement groups.

The proposal (AB56) would allow law enforcement agencies to impound vehicles when found to be used in state-defined reckless driving offenses and the driver owns the vehicle and has a prior, unpaid reckless driving offense. A municipality must enact an enabling ordinance to put the impoundment authorization into practice. Vehicles could only be held until fines are paid.

The minimum and maximum fines for reckless driving would double under Assembly Bill 55. Judges could impose a penalty of $50 to $400 for a first offense. Subsequent offenses would have a range of $100 to $1,000. The penalty for reckless driving that causes bodily harm would be doubled to a range of $600 to $4,000. An optional jail sentence for reckless driving that causes bodily harm would be increased from a range of between 30 days to one year to between 60 days to two years. A penalty for causing “great bodily harm” would be increased from a Class I felony to a Class H felony, pushing the maximum incarceration time from three years and six months to six years.

Reckless driving offenses are not explicitly enumerated in state law, but often include running stop lights, racing, driving the wrong way, distracted driving or excessive speeding. A number of initial reckless driving offenses are municipal offenses, while subsequent or more serious offenses go to the district attorney and circuit court system.

Mayor Johnson, testifying before the state Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice & Public Safety Tuesday, said the proposal “expands the toolbox for us.” He noted he declared reckless driving a public safety crisis as his first act as mayor. He said the issue is larger than just people driving stolen vehicles. “This is a serious quality-of-life issue that we have been talking about for the last several years.”

“While Milwaukee is the center of attention, this is indeed a statewide issue,” said Donovan. “I don’t pretend to believe this is going to instantly cure reckless driving. It’s one more tool in the toolbox.” He said he hoped judges would utilize the stiffer penalties.

When the council’s Judiciary & Legislation Committee vetted the proposal on Feb. 20, city legislative fiscal manager Jordan Primakow said the city did not yet have an estimate from the Milwaukee Police Department on how many vehicles it could impound. He said the city was also pursuing a change that would protect people that are on a payment plan to pay off citations. Primakow said the legislation was being “fast tracked,” but Donovan on Tuesday said he expected to amend the proposal to address the city’s concerns.

“We want to make sure we don’t have unintended consequences,” said Alderman Michael Murphy on Feb. 20. He noted that the provision that requires the individual to own the vehicle was ripe for abuse, including potentially increasing the number of stolen license plates. He thanked Wisconsin Justice Initiative executive director Gretchen Schuldt for raising concerns with the proposal. “You don’t want to put in a situation where you have more of a problem.”

Milwaukee is currently only able to tow vehicles that are unregistered and used in a handful of reckless-driving-related offenses. It can only realistically impound vehicles if it pursues a nuisance designation in civil court, a new strategy it has only attempted on two drivers. Both of the drivers had more than three-dozen offenses and suspended licenses. Donovan noted that fines go unpaid routinely.

“This law has been the same since 1953,” said Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) on Tuesday of the penalties in state law. Stroebel is the lead senate sponsor of AB55 to increase the penalties. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) is the lead senate sponsor of the impoundment proposal.

Other cosponsors include Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee). Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) submitted a note in support at Tuesday’s hearing.

An amendment pushed by the City of Milwaukee, said Donovan, would allow the city to recover the costs of towing and impounding a vehicle.

Ald. Scott Spiker, on Feb. 20, said he wanted the city to measure how effective the measures were. “We raised the fine for littering to $500, but I’m not sure we wrote a lot of $500 tickets.”

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Categories: Public Safety, Weekly

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