Lawmakers crack down on drunk driving

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Wisconsin lawmakers are once again trying to crack down on drunk driving in the state. State representative and senators gathered Tuesday morning to share details on bills introduced in the last few months. Lawmakers were joined by members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

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Several proposed bills would increase penalties for repeat OWI offenders by requiring minimum prison sentences. Another bill would require all offenders to use an ignition interlock device.

One bill would make a first OWI offense a criminal misdemeanor. Wisconsin is the only state in the U.S. where first-time drunk driving is a civil, not a criminal, offense.

"I do think it will cause some people to change their behavior and make the decision, 'I don't want to be in that situation,' and not get behind the wheel," said Republican State Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon, who introduced all five bills in the State Assembly this year.

Lawmakers have tried to increase penalties for drunk driving before, but legislation has faced opposition in the past.

"There is a downward pressure from the Tavern League," said Democratic State Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee. "They are looking to try and kill this because they think this will hurt their business."

NBC15 reached out to the Tavern League for comment, but officers were closed on Tuesday and NBC15 was not able to speak with anyone.

Legislation has also faced criticism from criminal defense attorneys. Defense attorney Erika Bierma said the increased penalties are too harsh.

"People are allowed to make mistakes in their life, and I don't know if we necessarily need the most punitive form for a first offense," Bierma said.

Bierma also said increased penalties would lead to a backlog of drunk driving cases in the court system and create more work for everyone.

"That just increases the caseload for the district attorney's offices, the public defender's offices," she said.

Despite the opposition, lawmakers are optimistic that they can find a bipartisan solution.

"There is a change in the calculation now that wasn't there before and that is we have a governor, Tony Evers, who has voiced support for stronger drunk driving laws on first offense," said State Sen. Larson.

State Rep. Ott said Tuesday a public hearing on the Assembly bills will be held soon, hopefully in April. State Sen. Larson said senators are working to schedule a hearing with the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.