Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

MPD Can Tow New Group of Repeat Reckless Drivers

City enacting its part of state law change. But how big of a loophole does the policy have?

By - May 11th, 2023 12:52 pm
A tow truck hauls away a vehicle on N. Milwaukee St. in 2019. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A tow truck hauls away a vehicle on N. Milwaukee St. in 2019. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) has a new tool to attempt to combat what city officials call an epidemic of reckless driving.

It can now tow vehicles where the driver is found to be driving recklessly and has a pre-existing, unpaid reckless driving ticket. Enabled by a state law change, it expands on a 2022 change that allows MPD to tow vehicles when the driver is caught driving recklessly, excessively speeding, fleeing an officer or drag racing and the vehicle is unregistered.

“It’s not going to solve the problem by itself, but it’s another tool at our disposal,” said Alderman Scott Spiker when the Public Safety & Health Committee discussed the proposal on April 27.

There are plenty of candidates where the law, introduced at the state level by Representative Robert Donovan, could apply.

The Milwaukee Municipal Court reported a 132.7% year-over-year increase in the number of filed cases of “Reckless Driving – Endanger Safety.” There were 263 charges filed in 2021 and 612 in 2022. “That’s quite a steep increase,” said Spiker. The four-year average before 2022 was 320.5.

“82% of those in 2022 went unpaid,” said city lobbyist Katie Jaeger.

But the state law that authorizes the new towing policy comes with a significant catch: the individual caught driving recklessly needs to own the vehicle.

“What if the vehicle is titled in the spouse’s name, but this person is a repeat offender? They’re not going to get impounded because they don’t own the vehicle?” asked newly-elected council member Lamont Westmoreland. That is correct. Jaeger said the intention from state lawmakers was to avoid burdening property owners that didn’t commit the offense. The earlier towing policy doesn’t require ownership, just that the vehicle is unregistered.

MPD chief of staff Heather Hough said the 2022 unregistered vehicle towing policy has resulted in 261 tows since it went into effect in May 2022. “We know that it’s an excellent tool to use for our worst offenders in this city. This new legislation adds to that,” she said. The chief of staff said the Fire & Police Commission will need to update the department’s standard operating procedures to put the latest policy into effect.

The total number of people that could be towed is unclear. In October, MPD reported that of the initial 100 tows under the unregistered vehicle tow policy, 50% were of vehicles not owned by the driver.

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic raised concern that people could receive multiple citations for reckless driving, but pay the fines and continue driving recklessly. Jaeger said there is interest at the state to expand the scope to include repeat offenders and other considerations.

Spiker said he would support more significant penalties for a wider range of offenses. “I would love to impound the person,” said Spiker. The new state law does not apply to drunk driving, excessive speeding and a host of other offenses.

“It is certainly no panacea,” said co-sponsor Ald. Michael Murphy, but he said it was another tool to help address the issue. “I hope the chief will utilize this tool appropriately in a fair and consistent manner.”

“This isn’t a magic bullet at all,” said Ald. Khalif Rainey. “We’re desperate to save someone’s life out here on the road.” He said it would reduce the number of “careless” and “selfish” drivers.

There is another issue with the policy: it can tie up officers as they need to wait with a vehicle for it to be towed.

Hough said MPD has reduced the wait time “significantly” by working with the Department of Public Works. Murphy said the council might want to consider funding a dedicated tow truck to free up officers from having to wait. The alderman said he was awaiting data to show how many people claimed impounded vehicles and other metrics before making future policy changes.

“The whole point of this exercise is to change people’s behavior,” said Murphy.

The council unanimously passed the proposal on May 9. Ald. Mark Borkowski joined Murphy and Spiker as a co-sponsor. Mayor Cavalier Johnson is expected to sign the ordinance later this week.

Fines Increasing

The new towing authorization was only half of Donovan’s legislation. A companion bill also effectively doubled the fines and associated penalties. Governor Tony Evers signed that proposal into law Wednesday.

“These bills are a good place to start, but our work cannot stop here,” said Evers in a statement. “I am once again urging the Legislature to support my budget initiatives that build upon the legislation I’m signing today to combat reckless driving across our state. I look forward to further discussions to make our roads and communities safer by taking a statewide, multi-pronged approach on this critically important issue.”

Under the new penalty structure, judges can impose a penalty of $50 to $400 for a first offense of reckless driving. Subsequent offenses range from $100 to $1,000 and, as it was previously, an up to one-year stay in county jail. The penalty for reckless driving that causes bodily harm was doubled to a range of $600 to $4,000. An optional jail sentence for causing bodily harm was also increased, and now ranges from a minimum of 60 days to a maximum of two years. The penalty for causing “great bodily harm” was 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.

Those subject to towing in Milwaukee would also be subject to a minimum $105 towing fee and a $20-per-day storage fee.

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