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Mequon — After years of work and about a half dozen bills proposed, a fourth OWI is now always a felony in Wisconsin thanks, in part, to State Representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon) who gets emotional about the issue.

“I’ve been outraged for a long time about these ridiculous situations where people are injured, maybe end up in wheelchairs, because of drunk drivers,” he said. “You deal with other road issues, like snow, and now you have to deal with people who are impaired and can’t even stay on their side of the line.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation website, there were about 24,000 drunk driving convictions in Wisconsin in 2015. Additionally, alcohol-related crashes killed 190 people in the state and injured nearly 2,900 in the same year.

“I think you have to crack down on people who put other people’s lives in danger because they can’t have the common sense to not get behind the wheel,” Ott said.

Combining elements of many of the bills into one, Ott said he focused on just one to get as much support as possible. He said it ended up with strong bipartisan support. Ott presented the bill that became law Jan. 1 along with Senator Alberta Darling.

The jail time for fourth OWI as well as the fifth and sixth OWI offenses has also been increased.

Bill specifics

The bill makes a fourth OWI offense always a class H felony, meaning the penalty can be up to six years in prison and/or up to a $10,000 fine.

Previously, a fourth OWI was only a felony if it happened less than five years after the third offense.

Additionally, the fifth and sixth OWI offenses were raised from class H to class G felonies, meaning penalties can range up to 10 years in prison and/or up to a $25,000 fine. The bill also increased the seventh, eighth, and ninth offenses from a class G to a class F felony, which carries a maximum of 12 ½ years in prison and/or a $25,000 maximum fine. Additional offenses are now a class E felony, which carries a maximum prison penalty of 15 years and/or a $50,000 maximum fine.

Ott said the law is still very new and he hasn’t heard a lot of feedback as of yet. He did say he’s often questioned if he feels the laws are good enough now that this has passed.

He doesn’t.

Getting tough

While Ott wants tougher OWI laws, such as tougher penalties for third offenses, he said it can be hard to gain support.

One of the biggest problems, according to Ott, is the Department of Corrections comes back with a large fiscal note saying it would cost an exorbitant amount to increase the penalty for a third offense because more would be incarcerated.

“I think that’s absurd,” Ott said.

He said a tougher law would be more of a deterrent and wouldn’t increase costs as much as projected. A second-time offender would have to think if it’s worth it to be a felon — to not be able to own a gun, hunt, etc., Ott added.

Another issue Ott cites is the current budget situation in the state, which he said “isn’t the best.”

Future bills

He does plan to pursue the issue from other angles, however, and has three more bills he said he plans to introduce during this session to make laws more consistent with other states.

The first bill creates a mandatory minimum of 18 months of prison time for fifth and sixth offenses, which is an increase from the current six-month minimum. He said seventh, eighth, and ninth offenses should have a minimum of three years.

A second bill will mandate a five-year minimum for a homicide OWI. He said this doesn’t apply to reckless driving. Ott said there is currently no minimum penalty.

The third bill fixes what Ott called the “ignition interlock loophole.” Current law, passed in 2009, requires ignition interlocks on all first-time and subsequent offenders with a high blood-alcohol content. When the bill passed, it was decided the interlock didn’t have to be installed until a person’s license was reinstated.

Ott said the problem arises when some choose to drive without their license. He said if they’re caught, they just get cited for no license, not for not having the required interlock, which would be a criminal misdemeanor.

The new bill says they can’t drive any vehicle without an interlock.

Wisconsin stands alone

On the topic of making Wisconsin law consistent with surrounding states, one area where Wisconsin is different than all other states regarding OWI is the first offense.

A first offense in all other states is a criminal offense but is only a ticket in Wisconsin.

Ott compared current Wisconsin law for first offenders “like getting a really bad speeding ticket.” He said the tickets can cost thousands and include things such as loss of license, the ignition interlock requirement, attorney fees if they choose and more.

One of the biggest arguments he said that’s used in favor of keeping the law the same is if a college student does something dumb but turns their life around, they have a criminal offense on their record that they have to report to potential employers forever.

The opposition often cites the fact that a first-time offender is probably not driving drunk for the first time, anyway.

“There’s strong public support for repeat offenders,” Ott said. “Not sure how much support there is for the first offense as a criminal penalty.”

However, if there was support for increased penalties for first-time offenders, Ott said he’d support it.

“If I thought we could get that bill passed in the legislature, I certainly would do it,” he said.

One option Ott said he’d tried in the past is to make a first offense a criminal penalty, but if there were no more convictions in the next five years it would become a civil forfeiture. He said it hadn’t gotten traction in the past, but he may look into this option more.

Ott said he plans on serving another term and that he wants to have a “meaningful impact” on OWI issues.

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