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Fourth offense OWI now a felony in Wisconsin: “We’re hopeful it does deter people”

MADISON -- It's 2017 -- and that means tougher penalties are now in place for repeat drunk drivers in Wisconsin. A fourth OWI is now considered a felony. The new law took effect Sunday, January 1st, and the lawmaker who introduced the legislation said it's a step toward even stricter consequences.

The law was signed by Governor Scott Walker in April. It aims to crack down on repeat drunk driving and send a message to drivers before they get behind the wheel.

"We`re hopeful in general that it does deter people from continuing to get the OWIs," Michael Leeman with the Brown Deer Police Department said.

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January 1st, 2017 marked the first time a fourth drunk driving offense would be considered a felony in Wisconsin -- regardless of how long it's been since the third offense.

Rep. Jim Ott

Rep. Jim Ott

"I really don`t want to see more people incarcerated or more people paying bigger fines for bad behavior. I`d like to see the behavior changed so we have less bad behavior," Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon said.

Rep. Ott said before January 1st, an offender would have only received a felony OWI if it was committed within five years of their third offense. Ott said the change in law received bipartisan support in the Wisconsin Legislature.

"It passed by a vote of 95 to 1," Rep. Ott said.

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Rep. Ott is rallying to make the law even stricter. He wants a third OWI to be considered a felony.

"One of the problems is every time we suggest tougher laws, we get reports from the Department of Corrections saying it`s going to cost so much, it`s going to be impossible to carry out under our current system," Rep. Ott said.

Law enforcement officials with the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department reported a quiet New Year's Eve holiday weekend.

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"Thankfully we didn`t have any serious alcohol-related crashes," Deputy Timothy Loberg said.

Loberg said he hopes the new law, which also increases maximum sentences for subsequent offenses acts as a deterrent and keeps drunk drivers off the road.

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"It seems to be the repeat offenders that we deal with more often," Loberg said.

Wisconsin is the only state that doesn't consider a first offense a crime.

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