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Happ hesitates on criminalizing first OWIs (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin attorney general hopeful Susan Happ said Thursday she isn’t convinced criminalizing first-time drunken offenses would be the right move, saying most first-timers realize they’ve made a mistake and turning them into criminals would inundate the state’s courts.

Happ, who serves as the Jefferson County district attorney, spent close to an hour at a luncheon at the private Madison Club fielding questions from the website’s president, Jeff Mayers, and diners. Asked for her thoughts on criminalizing first-offense drunken driving, she said the real problem is Wisconsin residents drink a lot and tolerate drunken driving.

“It’s a societal issue,” she said.

Wisconsin is the only state where the first offense is a civil violation. But Happ said she didn’t know if criminalizing the first offense would help.

She noted that many first-time drunken drivers realize they made a mistake, lose their license for up to nine months, face fines and contend with steeper insurance premiums. She also noted that first-timers who injure or kill someone face criminal charges.

Criminalizing the first offense would push more drivers to fight the charges in court, increasing costs and caseloads for overworked district attorneys and flooding the state’s courts with cases, she said. Drunken drivers don’t think about the penalties when they get behind the wheel because they’re impaired so criminalization wouldn’t act as a deterrent, she said.

Happ is battling Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee for the Democratic nomination. The winner of the Aug. 12 primary will face Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, a Republican, in the Nov. 4 general election. Incumbent Republican J.B. Van Hollen isn’t seeking re-election.

Ozanne, who was ticketed in an alcohol-related crash in 1987, and Richards both support criminalizing first-offense drunken driving. Schimel, who was cited for first-offense drunken driving himself in 1990, has said he’s skeptical of criminalization unless it would clearly improve public safety. Much like Happ, he has said the move would jam the state’s courts.

Happ added that if she were attorney general she would have helped in a secret investigation involving allegations that Republican recall candidates, including Gov. Scott Walker, illegally coordinated their campaigns with conservative groups in 2011 and 2012. Van Hollen has refused to assist in the probe, citing a potential conflict of interest and a possible perception of bias.

If someone violates the public trust or campaign finance laws they have to be prosecuted, Happ said.

“That’s our job, right?” she said.

Schimel, Ozanne and Richards all have said they would have helped in the investigation as well.

Happ also said she wouldn’t defend a number of polarizing state laws that Van Hollen is currently fighting to uphold in court, including the state’s gay marriage ban, a mandate that abortion providers have hospital admitting privileges and a requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls.

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