'We have a problem in Wisconsin:' Bill would make 1st offense OWI a crime, punishable by 30 days in jail

MILWAUKEE -- Two Republican lawmakers are once again trying to beef up Wisconsin's drunk driving laws. Similar bills were introduced last session, but didn't go anywhere.

Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that treats someone's first drunk driving offense as a civil violation -- not a crime.

Alberta Darling

"It's not equivalent to a parking ticket," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

Sen. Darling and Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, have been trying to change the law for more than a decade.

"We have a problem in Wisconsin and we need to address it," said Darling.

The Republican duo's new bill would make all first OWI convictions a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to 30 days in jail. It would also change the defendant's criminal conviction back to a civil forfeiture if the defendant doesn't reoffend within five years.

It's a change from past bills Rep. Ott hopes will win more support.

Jim Ott

"This would give people a second chance. If they really did make a mistake and they weren't going to drive drunk anymore, it will get removed after five years," said Ott.

Democrats have also called for tougher drunk driving laws. Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said he's open to supporting his Republican colleagues' bill, but was focused on passing his own bill, requiring everyone convicted of OWI to install an ignition interlock device.

However, Ott and Darling may have another ally.

Governor Tony Evers told reporters he, too, wants to criminalize first offense OWI. However, it's unclear how much influence Evers will have, or if the bill will have enough support to make it to Governor Evers' desk.

Lawmakers have until Monday, Jan. 14 to sign on as co-sponsors. If there is enough support, it will be referred to a committee where it could be passed, be amended or dropped altogether.