State Sen.-elect Kathy Bernier contends that a proposed bill that would make a first drunken driving offense a crime isn’t needed.
“I don’t think the first offense should be criminalized,” Bernie, R-Lake Hallie, said Friday. “Most people self-correct. The fines are significant, their insurance premiums go up, and they are humiliated. I don’t think we need more. Everyone deserves a second chance in life.”
Two Republican legislators, Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, have introduced legislation ahead of next week’s opening of the new legislative session to make a first drunken driving offense a crime, punishable up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail. The legislators have introduced the measure in the past, but it has never gained much traction.
Wisconsin traditionally has been among the top states for drunken driving arrests, and an average of one person was killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash every 2.9 hours on Wisconsin roads in 2015, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Legislators in the Chippewa Valley are split on whether the first offense should be a crime. Gov.-elect Tony Evers has indicated he supports the proposal.
Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, is skeptical on whether it is needed.
“Overall, drunk driving is going down,” Summerfield said. “I think education (about the dangers of driving drunk) is the best. Is this contradicting where we’re going, with moving toward rehab? If someone is .081 (blood alcohol level), are they a criminal?”
Summerfield noted that more people are using services like Uber and Lyft, and the state needs to focus on education and promoting safe rides. He’d rather see legislation that strengthens penalties for repeat offenders and those who are caught with high blood alcohol levels.
Sen.-elect Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said he’d like to see the legislation become law.
“It’s one of the issues I was supportive of when I was in the Legislature before,” Smith said. “There is such an embedded drinking culture in Wisconsin, and we’ve got to do all we can to change that. If we’re going to be tough on drugs, we’ve got to be tough on alcohol.”
Smith said the measure wouldn’t necessarily correct all the problems, and he added that he wanted to see a focus on treating alcoholism and getting people past their need for over-consumption.
Rep.-elect Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said she didn’t want to comment on the specific bill because she hasn’t read the proposal yet.
“As a whole, I think it’s time we revisit what we’re doing with drunk driving,” Emerson said. “I’m glad the issue is coming up.”
Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, said he also hasn’t read the bill yet and didn’t want to comment at this time. Rep.-elect Jesse James, R-Altoona, and Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Wisconsin is the only state where a first drunken driving offense isn’t considered a crime.
Under the Ott and Darling proposal, first offenders who don’t commit another operating while intoxicated offense for five years could ask a judge to vacate the conviction and amend the record to a civil violation.
“This bill shows that Wisconsin is taking drunk driving seriously, while at the same time offering a second chance to those who do not re-offend within five years,” Ott said in a statement.
Other bills in the package would mandate that anyone convicted of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle be sentenced to at least five years in prison; require first-time offenders to appear in court even if they’re tagged with a civil violation; and increase minimum sentences for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months.
The two lawmakers introduced the same bills last session to no avail.
Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was noncommittal when asked about the bills’ chances, saying only that Republican senators plan to discuss policy priorities later this month.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t immediately respond to an email.
Ott and Darling introduced a similar bill in 2012 that would have made a first offense a misdemeanor if the driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.15 percent or higher. The new measure doesn’t include minimum BALs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.