Wisconsin is the only state in the country that treats a first-offense drunk driving as a civil infraction. Every other state treats a first-offense drunk driving as a misdemeanor, meaning a criminal offense not civil. Wisconsin has some of the nation’s highest levels of drinking and driving.
Two lawmakers in Wisconsin are trying to change this. These are State Rep Jim Ott and State Senator Alberta Darling, whose goal is to bring harsher OWI laws to Wisconsin.
What Would Change For Wisconsin Laws?
In one proposal, Wisconsin’s first-offense OWI would become a misdemeanor, punishable by 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. At the discretion of a judge, the misdemeanor could be reduced to a civil infraction if the person does not receive another OWI conviction within five years.
A first-time offender would have to appear in court if the OWI remains a civil infraction.
Another proposal would create a mandatory minimum of at least five years in prison for a drunk driver who kills someone. For fifth and sixth OWI offenses, jail time would be a minimum of six months to 18 months.
A different lawmaker introduced a bill that would require all OWI offenders to have an ignition interlock in their car.
First-Offense Wisconsin OWI Has Some Strict Penalties
A first-time OWI offender still faces penalties for the civil infraction. With the civil infraction comes a license suspension of 6 to 9 months. Drivers with a blood alcohol content of over .15 must place an ignition interlock in their car.
Contrast that with the driver’s license penalties in Michigan. A first-offense operating while visibly impaired carries no driver’s license suspension, just restrictions. An operating while intoxicated conviction has a 30-day suspension followed by restrictions. And an operating while intoxicated with a BAC of .17 carries a 45-day suspension, restrictions for a year, and an ignition interlock in the vehicle for one year.
In Minnesota, a first offense is a misdemeanor, with a possible 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A first-offense in Illinois carries up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. A first-offense in Michigan is a 93 day misdemeanor.
Drinking in Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project estimates that on average, Wisconsin drinkers have 634 drinker per year. This is 25% higher than the national average. The 5,000 member Tavern League of Wisconsin is a powerful industry lobby. The state’s drinking culture may have contributed to the lax OWI policies.These factors may ensure that Wisconsin laws don’t change anytime soon.
Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Attorney focusing on DUI Law in Washtenaw County.
ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.
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