State seeks OWI reform

  • Lawmakers in Wisconsin are discussing changing the drunk driving penalty from a traffic citation to a criminal offense.
  • Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that does not consider drunk driving a crime.
  • Many stand on both sides of the issue, but some worry the change will result in higher expenses for prosecuting in county courts and lower conviction rates due to the severity of criminal offenses.

Drunk drivers in Wisconsin may soon face more than just a traffic citation for a first-offense operating while intoxicated violation.

Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that does not recognize a first-offense OWI as a criminal offense. However, this may change as state lawmakers are actively discussing changing the law.

Legislators and organizations in Wisconsin stand on both sides of the issue. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is one of the biggest supporters of the proposal. The Wisconsin Tavern League, which runs the SafeRides Program, opposes changing the law.

The SafeRides Program provides tavern patrons with alternative transportation.

Maj. Dan Lonsdorf, director of transportation safety for Wisconsin's Department of Transportation, said some opponents of the proposal are concerned that county district attorneys and judges may be faced with significantly higher workloads.

"Traffic citations are handled by municipal courts," Lonsdorf said. "Three-fourths of Wisconsin's OWI cases represent first offenders. These are handled by local courts and, consequently, our conviction rate is very high."

Lonsdorf said Wisconsin currently has a conviction rate of 94 percent for those who have an OWI citation.

However, if drunk driving is made a criminal offense, the cases will be handled by county courts. Lonsdorf said this is more expensive because of higher costs for public defenders, prosecutors and judges.

"Some also worry that the conviction rate might go down because a criminal offense is a more serious charge and many may try to fight conviction rather than plead guilty, as many do with traffic citations," Lonsdorf said.

Sandy Williams, Ozaukee County's district attorney, said if the law were to change, those working for county courts would merely be adding to the areas with which they already work.

She said the state would have to look at each county individually to determine how many OWIs that county should expect and if that number is reasonable.

"I've been doing this job for 25 years and every year presents new changes that affect us, but that doesn't stop me from doing my job," Williams said.

Williams said it is important to emphasize that this is a safety concern above all else.

"If this is important enough because there are lives at risk, then we need to make sure there are enough resources available so we can be effective," Williams said.

Lonsdorf said Wisconsin currently runs around 44,000 drunk driving convictions per year, which is significantly higher than the other states in the surrounding area. However, he said the state's conviction rate is much better than those of many other states.

"It is important to remember that there are between 300 and 350 people per year killed in drunk driving accidents in the state," Lonsdorf said. "A lot of people are dying needlessly and the ultimate goal with all of this is to save lives."

Criminalizing drunk driving is one way to deter this behavior before it occurs, said Kari Kinnard, state executive director of MADD in Wisconsin.

"I understand part of the issue is assessing costs and numbers, but Wisconsin citizens will incur fewer costs overall because there will be fewer accidents from drunk driving if it is criminalized," Kinnard said.

Kinnard said fewer accidents resulting from drunk driving would also result in lower expenses for health care, insurance, property damage and better quality of life in general.

"We need to sit down with all of the people involved in this issue and work out all the details before anything is actually changed," Kinnard said. "However, MADD believes you can't put a price tag on a human life."