Wisconsin Legislators Reignite Fight Against Drunk Driving

Two Republican lawmakers have reintroduced three bills in the Wisconsin Legislature that would impose stiffer penalties and ignition interlock requirements for drunken drivers.

Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills introduced the bills Thursday. One would create a five-year minimum prison sentence for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. There is currently no minimum sentence for the crime. The second would raise the minimum incarceration period for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months. The third would prohibit all repeat offenders as well as first-timers with a blood-alcohol percentage of .15 or greater from driving any vehicle without an ignition interlock. The device measures a driver’s blood alcohol content like a breathalyzer and prevents the car from starting if the driver is over the limit.

Wisconsin law already requires all offenders to place an interlock device on their vehicles when their license is reinstated. Ott and Darling said in a joint news release that drunken drivers who drive someone else’s car before they regain their license can be ticketed for driving without a license but not for violating the interlock requirement.

“The bills are part of an ongoing effort to make penalties for impaired driving more in line with the seriousness of the crime,” Ott said in the release.

Wisconsin’s drunken driving laws are relatively lax. It’s the only state that treats a first offense as a civil violation rather than a crime. Opposition from the powerful Tavern League lobby and exorbitant cost estimates have dampened past attempts to toughen the statutes.

Spokeswomen for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos both said their officers were reviewing the proposals.

Ott has been working for years to tighten the rules and fulfill a promise to constituent Judy Jenkins, whose pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter died in a crash with a drunken driver in 2008. But he has struggled to gain traction. He introduced the interlock bill in 2013 and shepherded it through the Assembly, but it never made it out of the Senate’s judiciary committee. The panel’s chairman then was Republican Glenn Grothman, who is now a congressman. His spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to an email asking about why Grothman didn’t advance the bill.

He and Darling introduced the minimum sentence bills last session and the measures went to the Assembly’s criminal justice committee but never got a hearing. The committee’s chairman last session, Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch, didn’t immediately return a message Friday inquiring about why the bills stalled.

Fiscal estimates attached to last session’s homicide bill projected the measure would cost district attorneys an additional $273,500 annually, the Department of Corrections $1.4 million and public defenders $50,600. That bill would have set up a seven-year minimum sentence, however. The new bill calls for five years. Last session’s bill to raise fifth and sixth offense minimum incarcerations included only a fiscal estimate from the Department of Transportation, which projected no financial impact on that agency.

Ott said by phone that he’s more optimistic this time, because he can build on the momentum of a bill that Gov. Scott Walker signed last year making all fourth drunken driving offenses a felony and increasing maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses. What’s more, the Tavern League supports all three bills. Pete Madland, the league’s executive director, said in Ott and Darling’s release that their bills “complement our efforts by going after the worst offenders who give everyone else a bad name.”