Wisconsin tightens OWI laws in 2017

Published: Dec. 29, 2016 at 10:58 PM CST
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A new OWI law hits the books on Jan. 1 in Wisconsin, and it will make your fourth offense a felony, regardless of your previous record.

"Does somebody have to die for you to be punished?" mother of four Jessica Rogers said. She worries about having children of driving age.

"I have a few kids that aren't 16 yet, thank God," she said, "but, when they are, you don't know what they're going to come across."

"It's about time the legislature makes any fourth OWI offense truly a felony," Frank Harris, Director of State Government Affairs for Mom's Against Drunk Driving, said.

While Harris said he's happy to see a crack down, he said it isn't enough. "Nothing is going to be enough until drunk driving is completely eliminated."

"It's enough for now," President of the Marathon County Tavern League Karen Zeller said, "Things may change in the future.'

Zeller called the law change necessary, but doesn't see the need for them to get any tougher.

"I think everyone has their own opinion," she explained. "It's just the state Tavern League lobbies to make sure it doesn't get so harsh... with these laws it's kind of hard to get people in [the bar] if they don't have a designated driver."

Zeller added that the Tavern League also works with legislators to make sure appropriate laws are passed, but is against ever criminalizing a first offense. Harris, with MADD, doesn't disagree. He said calling the first offense criminal won't stop a repeater.

"People continually beat up on Wisconsin as being weak on drunk driving... and in states that do criminalize the first offense, rarely does that first offender ever see any jail time," Harris explained.

Harris and MADD would rather see legislative efforts toward all-offender breathalyzer laws.

"This is the only tool out there that can physically separate drinking from driving," he said. "Because, let's face it, the only other way is to throw all drunk drivers in jail. And there's just not enough jail space for all the drunk drivers in Wisconsin."

Harris said MADD will continue their push for stricter legislation, meantime Roger is tired of lives being left to chance.

"It's not enough. They're getting four chances," she said.

The penalties also increased sentencing for repeat offenders. Fifth- and sixth-time offenders will receive a maximum penalty of five years, eighth- and ninth-time offenders can get a penalty of up to seven and a half years, and the maximum sentence for 10 or more OWI's could land you up to a decade in jail.