Changes proposed to strengthen Wisconsin's drunk driving laws - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Changes proposed to strengthen Wisconsin's drunk driving laws

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Lake Hallie (WQOW) - Changes could be coming to Wisconsin's drunk driving laws. Six bills were recently introduced in the legislature designed to bring stiffer penalties to those who drink and drive. But some of those proposed changes have smaller police departments concerned.

"Drunk driving accidents, in my 30 years of law enforcement, I've seen more fatalities and more impact on families than I have in all the murder investigations that I've participated in," says Lake Hallie Police Chief Cal Smokowicz.

The statistics are sobering.

"On average the last 10 years, we've had an average of 200 fatalities a year in drunk driving crashes in Wisconsin," says Rep. Jim Ott (R-23rd District).

Six new bills are being introduced in the legislature to try to drive down the number of OWI arrests. Among the changes: criminalizing all first offense with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or above, making it a criminal misdemeanor, and making a 2nd offense OWI a criminal misdemeanor.

Two other bills would add in minimum sentences for convicted drunk drivers who injured or killed someone while behind the wheel.

"Two other bills would establish minimum mandatory sentences. In one case we would have minimum mandatory sentences for causing injuries while OWI. Right now there are maximum sentences, but there are no minimum sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, so in reality, a judge could just let a person walk free without serving any jail time. This bill would require sentences ranging from six months to three years, depending on the severity of the injury that was caused. Another bill would establish a minimum mandatory sentence for homicide while OWI, right now the maximum sentences are between 25 and 40 years depending on whether or not it's the first offense, but there's no mandatory minimum," says Rep. Ott.

Yet another bill would require an in-person appearance in court for a first offense OWI.

"Another bill would make 3rd offense a felony, which would mean it would be punishable by more than a year in prison," says Rep. Ott.

And in the Village of Lake Hallie, that change would impact more than a quarter of their OWI arrests.

"We made 54 total drunk driving arrests last year in the Village of Lake Hallie, of that, you can see 15 of those were 3rd offense or greater," says Chief Smokowicz.

Another change?

"Another bill would allow the seizure of vehicles for third offense and higher offenders, and that would be at the discretion of the judge," says Rep. Ott.

Police departments could then sell the car and keep the profits to cover the cost of the seizure. But that has some smaller police departments, like Lake Hallie's, concerned.

"We have to safeguard that vehicle, we either can have it placed in an impound lot and pay daily storage, or we move our squad cars out of our two garages and we park the squad cars with $20-30,000 worth of equipment outside and we park the defendant's vehicle inside so no one steals their radio," says Chief Smokowicz.

And allowing police to sell the vehicles, may not help much.

"We've had many vehicles out there that had no value or the value of the debt on the vehicle far exceeded the value of the vehicle, and so if the law says we have to seize these vehicles, what are we going to do with all these vehicles," says Chief Smokowicz.

But lawmakers say the goal isn't to make more work for police departments, it's to make Wisconsin's roads safer.

"We're not trying to put more people in prison or jail or make them pay higher fines, the idea is to actually produce a deterrent to bad behavior, says Rep. Ott.

Those six bills have been circulated for co-sponsorship. Representative Ott says the next step is to get them assigned to a committee and get a public hearing on them.

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