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New law would mandate fatal OWI convictions require 5 year minimum sentence

Posted at 5:59 PM, Jun 20, 2019

MADISON — On Thursday, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed two bills that aim to strengthen OWI laws in the Badger state.

The first bill would make sure anyone convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and causing death, faces a minimum prison sentence of five years.

“It’s so important families who’ve lost a loved one because of an impaired driver get some sense of justice,” says Rep. Jim Ott, who introduced the bill. “I’ve met a significant number of family members where the drunk driver who killed their loved one is given a relatively light sentence. In once case, someone was out of prison in 11 months. In other cases it’s one or three years. That’s not okay.”

The second bill that passed the state assembly Thursday requires that anyone arrested for their first OWI appears in court.

“So, they can’t just send their attorney or send in their fine,” Ott said. “They actually have to stand in front of a judge. I think that makes a strong impression on some people. It’s worth it if it gets them not to be in that position again.”

Right now, it’s up to each city or county to decide if first-time OWI offenders have to show up to court.

Before these bills become law though, the Wisconsin State Senate must also review and vote to approve them. That process won’t start until this fall.

A statement released Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s communications director reads: “Majority Leader Fitzgerald says that the Senate anticipates passing a number of bills that deal directly with drunk driving during the upcoming fall session of the Legislature.”

It’s a tough wait for lawmakers who’ve worked for years to get these bills this far.

“We can’t get frustrated, because once in awhile you have a win,” Ott said. “Today we’re having two wins. I’ve been chipping at OWI laws for more than 10 years now. You can’t get discouraged if something doesn’t work out the first time. The key is to keep the discussion going. We’re making progress. It just might not happen as fast as some of us would like.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos supports the passage of these bills, but defends Wisconsin for being the only state that does not make a first OWI a crime. He wants the focus on repeat offenders.

“The vast majority of the time, when people commit that first drunk driving offense, they don't commit a second,” Vos said. “I want to make sure that if you do it a second time, that there's a severe penalty you should pay.”

Rep. Ott is still working to get more support on making a first-time OWI a misdemeanor in Wisconsin. He has proposed that if the first-time offender does not get another OWI in five years, the misdemeanor is removed from their record.

“I think most people understand that it's an incredibly difficult situation when you get that drunk driving ticket,” Vos said. “The fact that there's a pretty stiff fine, your insurance goes up. You have to appear in court under our new bill. I think all of those are a really strong deterrent. And I don't want to fill up our jails with people who made a simple mistake on a first time.”