Republican bill would criminalize 1st-time drunken driving in Wisconsin

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MADISON — Two Republican legislators are continuing their quest to crack down on drunken driving, reintroducing bills Thursday that would make a first offense a crime and impose stiffer penalties on repeat offenders.

Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling have been working for nearly a decade to create stiffer drunken driving penalties in Wisconsin, the only state that treats a first offense as a civil violation rather than a crime. Drunken driving is rampant in the state — an average of one person was killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash every 2.9 hours on Wisconsin roads in 2015, according to the state Department of Transportation — but the two lawmakers have had little success working against a deeply ingrained drinking culture and a powerful tavern league lobby.

Nevertheless, Ott and Darling began circulating a package of legislation for co-sponsorship Thursday, three days before new legislators are sworn in for the 2019-21 session.

The highest profile proposal is a plan to make all first offenses misdemeanors punishable by up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail. First offenders who don’t commit another operating-under-the-influence offense for five years could ask a judge to vacate the conviction and amend the record to a civil violation.

“This bill shows that Wisconsin is taking drunk driving seriously, while at the same time offering a second chance to those who do not reoffend within five years,” Ott said in a news release.

Ott and Darling introduced a similar bill in 2012 that would have made a first offense a misdemeanor if the driver’s blood alcohol content was 0.15 percent or higher. The new measure doesn’t include minimum BACs.

The lawmakers have a new ally this time around: Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who told reporters Wednesday that he wants to criminalize first offense in hopes of deterring drunken driving. Evers made the remarks after a suspected drunken driver struck and killed a firefighter who had stopped to help a driver during a snowstorm in Madison on New Year’s Eve, making headlines in the state’s capital city.

It’s unclear how much influence Evers will have, though, since Republicans control both legislative houses.

Other bills in the package would mandate that anyone convicted of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle be sentenced to at least five years in prison; require first-time offenders to appear in court even if they’re tagged with a civil violation; and increase minimum sentences for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months.

The two lawmakers introduced the same bills last session to no avail. Fiscal estimates projected the homicide bill alone would cost the state prison system hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year.

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, was noncommittal when asked about the bills’ chances, saying only that Republican senators plan to discuss policy priorities later this month.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, didn’t immediately respond to an email. Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Tavern League, didn’t immediately return a voicemail.

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