New Legislation Aims to Make Repeat OWI Conviction In Wisconsin a Felony

Wisconsin is not known for having harsh Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) laws. In fact, it was one of the last states to lower the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit to 0.08 percent.

In an attempt to change the state's reputation, some legislators are pushing for more stringent OWI penalties. Currently, Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills is heading the most recent push. Her plan includes an effort to introduce a bill that would increase the severity of penalties for drivers who receive repeat OWI convictions.

Current OWI Law in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, a first offense for drunk driving is treated as a traffic offense and results in a monetary penalty of up to $300 and potential driver's license suspension. Second and third offenses are listed as criminal misdemeanors and also come with monetary penalties.

A person will not receive a felony charge in Wisconsin until the fourth offense, and only if that offense occurs within five years of the previous conviction. Wisconsin is currently one of seven states in the nation that does not attach a felony charge until the fourth offense. Penalties associated with this charge include a minimum monetary fine of $600 and a minimum prison sentence of six months.

Proposed Legislation

Sen. Darling hopes to change this law. Instead of charging a driver with a felony on the fourth offense, she plans to propose a bill that would make a third OWI offense a felony. The bill would also increase the penalties for subsequent convictions.

This is not the first time Sen. Darling has attempted to pass a bill to increase OWI penalties. In 2009 she cosponsored a similar bill. The bill received a great deal of scrutiny, most of which focused on the cost of implementing the changes.

These concerns were supported when the state lowered the felony charge from the fifth to the fourth OWI offense in 2010. It is estimated that this change alone cost the state over $80 million. Since Sen. Darling's proposal includes a similar change, the cost to the state could be similar. Fellow legislators may hesitate to sign on to such a large cost during these difficult economic times when the state is attempting to balance its budget.

Sen. Darling counters such critiques, arguing that the state needs to treat people with multiple OWI convictions differently. She believes the bill will find more success and is renewing her push to pass the bill now that the "recalls and collective bargaining disputes have died down."

If the bill passes, those charged with repeat OWIs will be greatly impacted.

Although it is always important to take an OWI charge seriously, the current debate in the legislature makes it even more important to discuss OWI charges with an experienced Wisconsin drunk driving defense lawyer.