A Legal Error in Wisconsin Makes it Easier to Drive Drunk

There is an old saying: “Those who love sausages or law should not watch them being made.”

Lawmaking can be a messy process, and recently the process in Wisconsin got a bit too messy: while rewriting an OWI law to make it stronger, legislators left out some text and ended up making things more difficult for those prosecuting Wisconsin OWI crimes.annies-law-should-go-on-the-books

It started with good intentions. The Wisconsin Legislature passed Act 224 in April to impose stiffer penalties on repeat OWI offenders – drunk drivers with seven or more convictions, or ones who cause injury to others.

But somehow, in drafting this tougher legislation, legislators dropped some text from the existing law. The result: those causing serious injuries during an OWI face tougher criminal charges, but those causing minor injuries no longer face any.

RostbratwurstIn our legal system, a prosecutor can’t just decide how bad an action is and then make up a criminal charge – there has to be a law that says the action is a crime.

Currently in Wisconsin, if you have no previous OWI offenses, driving under the influence and crashing is not a criminal offense, provided you only cause some bumps and bruises on your victim. If it seems an unusual way to handle drunk drivers, it is: Wisconsin is the only state in the union to treat a first OWI as a simple ticketing offense – pretty much like a broken tail light. Stiffer penalties exist for more serious crimes, such as mandatory ignition interlocks for driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .15 or greater. But first offenses are treated lightly.

With the law as it is, the only alternative prosecutors have is to spend extra time and resources trying to prove serious injury or reckless driving, so criminal charges can be filed. No one is helped by this obstacle course, except the drunk driver, who is more likely to get away with a wrist slap.

Naturally, prosecutors and safety advocates are pushing to have the situation fixed. With any luck, the oversight will be corrected, and Wisconsin will have a little better handle on the tough problem of keeping drunk drivers off the road.

Moral: it might not be necessary to watch sausages being made — even in bratwurst-loving Wisconsin — but it helps to keep an eye on road safety law.