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Wisconsin getting tougher on impaired driving

  • Birdsall Obear

Wisconsin has long had a reputation as a state that is relatively lenient on drunk driving charges. That reputation isn't entirely deserved, and things are changing quickly. Recently, lawmakers have been moving to toughen the state's penalties for impaired drivers.

Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where a first-time OWI charge is treated only as a civil offense, and not a criminal offense. This year, lawmakers have sought to shed this distinction, and have debated a number of measures that would toughen penalties for first-time offenders and others. 

Recently, Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill that increases penalties for people convicted of OWI-related homicide. People convicted of driving drunk or drugged in an accident that resulted in someone's death will now face a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. Judges have discretion to issue a lower sentence in these cases, if they find a good reason.

Meanwhile, another bill working its way through the legislature would change the way the state prosecutes first-time OWI charges. The current law allows first-time OWI offenders to skip a court appearance and merely pay a fine. Assembly Bill 15 would make a court appearance mandatory. If the bill becomes law, those who fail to show up to court will be automatically convicted of the applicable charges against them. They will also face a new $300 fine.

The truth is that Wisconsin's current penalties for people convicted of OWI may be more lenient than those imposed by other states, but they are in no way easy. A conviction on OWI charges, especially a repeat offense, can be disastrous to a driver's finances, freedom and future. It's important to seek out help from an attorney with experience in OWI defense, to get advice about all one's options after being accused of impaired driving.

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