The year 2015 saw 190 people killed in Wisconsin as a result of alcohol-related car crashes. Two state legislators are trying to decrease that number by passing a law that makes first-offense drunk driving a criminal offense rather than a civil violation.
Currently, drivers cited for a first-time OWI face possible license revocation and fines of approximately $1,000. However, because the offense is not a crime, a first-time OWI is not currently a cause for worry about potential jail time or a criminal record. The new law would change that, if passed, by making first-time OWI a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail and up to $500 in fines.
First-offense drunk driving is a crime in 49 states. Wisconsin is the only holdout. The lawmakers who have introduced the bill hope that the change would serve as a deterrent to prevent people from getting behind the wheel and attempting to drive while intoxicated.
The proposed legislation would result in a number of changes in the way the courts deal with OWI offenses. Municipal courts do not handle crimes, so circuit courts would handle all drunk driving cases. Public defenders would become available to those with drunk driving charges who require them, whereas the state does not currently supply public defenders to first-time OWI cases because it is not a criminal matter under the current law. The new legislation would increase the number of criminal cases on the docket.
The legislators who introduced the bill are currently seeking co-sponsors for it. If other legislators agree to sponsor the bill, it could become law in the near future. Those with concerns about an OWI or any criminal charges may find it helpful to consult an attorney.