By Scott Bauer
Madison – Wisconsin law is tougher on drivers under age 21 who were busted for drinking and getting behind the wheel in other states than if they were convicted in Wisconsin, a divided state Supreme Court has made clear.
Wisconsin law is inconsistent on how it treats “zero tolerance” law convictions. The laws establish penalties for drivers under the legal drinking age of 21 who have anywhere from a trace of alcohol in their system up to the legal limit of .08 percent.
The court said Dec. 2 that “zero tolerance” convictions in Wisconsin don’t count as prior offenses, but they do count if the offenses happened in other states.
The 5-1 ruling came in the case of Gerard Carter, an Illinois man who was 26-years-old when arrested in East Troy, Wis., near the Illinois border in 2007. He had one prior drunken driving conviction in Wisconsin, so he was initially charged with a second offense.
But that charge was later upped to a fourth offense when prosecutors learned he had twice been found guilty of violating Illinois’ “zero tolerance” law for either refusing to submit to a blood alcohol test or for having any amount of alcohol in their system when he was under 21.
Wisconsin has a similar law, but it explicitly says that convictions for violating it do not count as prior offenses. However, Wisconsin law does call for treating similar convictions from other states as prior convictions, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote for the majority.
The Legislature could have carved out an exception for out-of-state “zero tolerance” license suspensions, but it did not, Abrahamson wrote in overturning a ruling of a Wisconsin appeals court.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley dissented, arguing that the Legislature intended out-of-state “zero tolerance” convictions to apply only to commercial vehicle operators, not youthful drivers. Justice Patrick Crooks did not participate.
Carter’s attorney, Craig Kuhary, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Carter pleaded guilty to the fourth offense charge in 2008 and was sentenced to eight months in jail, had his license suspended for 2 1/2 years and was fined $2,000. Had the charge been a second offense, the most jail time he would have faced was six months.