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Committee considers drunken driving sentences (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A Republican bill that would ensure repeat drunken drivers spend time behind bars generated surprisingly little opposition at public hearing Thursday.

The measure, authored by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, would rewrite state law to require judges to impose a three-year prison sentence on seven-, eight- and nine-time drunken drivers and a minimum four-year prison sentence for a 10th offense or beyond. Judges also would be required to impose a mandatory 30-day jail sentence on anyone who causes an injury by driving with a blood-alcohol content between 0.04 percent and 0.08 percent.

Ott told the Assembly Judiciary Committee a 2009 law toughening Wisconsin’s drunken driving laws was supposed to impose those mandatory sentences. But a state appeals court ruled last month the technical statutory language actually leaves a judge free to decide whether to impose any prison time. If the judge decides prison is appropriate, he or she must impose the mandatory three-year or four-year sentences, the court ruled. Ott said his bill would clarify the Legislature’s intent that repeat offenders must be locked up.

He went on to say current law states a judge may lock up a driver in an injury crash for 30 days but doesn’t require it. Clearly, he said, the Legislature intended to impose mandatory jail time in that instance as well.

He said he didn’t have any statistics on drunken driving sentences that might show how often judges were opting to impose prison or jail time but cautioned the statutes are so blurry they’re ripe for legal challenges.

“I would like to make [drunken driving penalties] tougher,” committee member Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Powers Lake, said. “To me this is just a first step.”

At least 220 people have been killed in alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin every year between 2002 and 2011, according state Department of Transportation statistics. More than 51,000 people have been injured over that span.

Lawmakers have long talked about toughening Wisconsin’s notoriously weak drunken driving laws – a first offense in the state is a civil violation akin to a speeding ticket – but they’ve always run up against the state’s deeply ingrained drinking traditions, cost concerns and the powerful Tavern League.

The most recent movement on the issue came in 2009 when Democrats used majorities in the state Senate and Assembly to pass the law establishing the minimum sentences. The law also made a first-time offense a misdemeanor if a child is in the car and a fourth offense a felony if it occurs within five years of a previous offense. Critics complained the legislation didn’t go nearly far enough.

No one has registered with the state Government Accountability Board as opposing or supporting Ott and Darling’s new bill, but the measure was just released on April 29. Tavern League lobbyist Scott Stenger didn’t immediately return a message.

Wisconsin Counties Association legislative associate Dave Callender was the only person who testified against the bill. He said the association supports efforts to curb drunken driving but is worried the bill would create more jail inmates and drive up counties’ costs. In written remarks to the committee he said a minimum sentence of 30 days costs an average of $1,500 per offender.

But he had no projections on how many additional inmates Ott’s bill might create. Ott countered that if judges are following current law as the Legislature intended and imposing minimum sentences the county shouldn’t see any major cost increases.

“I just want to make the committee aware that even if judges have been following mandatory minimums it impacts taxpayers,” Callender responded.

The three Democrats on the committee said if Republicans really want to address drunken driving they should focus on treating alcoholism.

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said the threat of prison doesn’t stop drunken drivers because they’re drunk and can’t think straight. Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, questioned whether the bill creates an unfunded mandate and asked Ott to better define “injury.”

“My concern is we don’t have a situation where a judge is required by your bill to provide a 30-day sentence if someone cuts their finger,” Hebl said.

Ott agreed to revise the measure. Despite their misgivings, all three Democrats said they support the measure and the hearing ended in less than an hour.

Ott and Darling say they plan to introduce a package of legislation later this summer to toughen Wisconsin’s drunken driving laws further. Ott is trying to deliver on a promise to crack down on drunken driving he made to Judy Jenkins, a constituent whose pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter were killed in 2008 by a repeat drunken driver.

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