A state legislative committee approved six bills Thursday in the latest step by Wisconsin lawmakers to create harsher penalties for drunk drivers.
Introduced in August by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Falls, the bills include classification changes that make a second drunken driving offense a misdemeanor and fourth conviction a felony.
The collection of bills also includes mandatory court appearances and jail terms of up to three years if a driver under the influence injures another individual and 10 years in homicide cases.
As it stands today in Wisconsin, first offense OWI is classified as a civil violation and third and fourth offenses are considered misdemeanors. The bills also aim to also make a first-offense OWI a misdemeanor if the driver has a blood-alcohol level of 0.15. The legal driving limit is 0.08.
The six Republicans on the nine-member Assembly Judiciary Committee, which Rep. Ott chairs, approved the bills unanimously. The panel's three Democrats, including Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, however, took exception with two of the mandatory sentence provisions and expressed concerns about cost burdens they could create.
“I'm really against drunk driving and want to do everything I can to prevent it and be tough on those who commit the crime,” said Hebl, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat. “I also want to make sure we as a state use our money as efficiently as possible. That's where me and my [Democrat] colleagues had some concerns.”
A practicing attorney, Hebl said mandatory court appearances and jail stints would translate to more litigation and incarceration costs for municipalities, counties, “whoever is dealing with these cases.”
“We need to make sure we don't have an unfunded mandate,” Hebl said. “In order to make these bills work, the funding has to be complete, otherwise you dump these obligations without funding on people that don't have unlimited resources.”
Hebl also took umbrage with mandatory sentences, saying such provisions can take the law out of the hands of judges elected to perform a public service.
“If the sentences are already there, why have a judge?” Hebl remarked. “They become just a puppet there and I don't want that. We have judges to do a job and they are in the best position to evaluate a sentence. So let them do it.”
Hebl also said he and his committee colleagues made amendments to each of the six bills requiring the existing Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau to review all of them within 18 months of implementation.
“We need that evaluation and have the people in place to do it,” Hebl said. “I want to see if these [new laws] are working and that it doesn't cost the tax payers any more money.”