Wisconsin Lawmaker: Seize Drunk Drivers’ Cars!

confiscate drunk drivers carsDrunk drivers are famously paradoxical animals. Few criminals are represented in a wider sampling of society, from minimum-wage workers and unemployed to millionaire NFL stars. It is a crime that can take a terrible toll on innocent people, destroying lives and livelihoods. Yet it gains almost nothing for perpetrators when they succeed.

And it is extremely hard to eradicate. A certain percentage of drunk drivers are almost immune to the effects of punishment. In fact, one of the most common punishments for drunk driving – license suspension – is notoriously ineffective. Which is why a Wisconsin lawmaker wants to confiscate the vehicles of people with multiple OWI convictions.

Andy Nicholson, a Green Bay District Council supervisor, wants his county to seize the cars and trucks of felony OWI offenders – those who have four drunk driving convictions. Currently vehicles used to facilitate drug deals are seized by police.

The move is an unusual one for an unusual state. When legislatures decide to get tough on drunk driving, they usually follow a playbook: increase fines, increase jail terms, and extend ignition interlocks to cover first offenses. Extra penalties are placed on high-BAC (blood alcohol concentration) offenses and repeat offenses. Vehicle impoundment is also used in a number of states, but those states tend to have the other penalties in place.

Wisconsin: The Stubborn State

Wisconsin is notorious for going easy on drunk drivers. A first OWI with a low BAC is a ticketing offense, like a broken taillight. It doesn’t even require a court appearance. Contrast that attitude with, say, Arizona, which imposes a minimum 10-day jail sentence, a $250 fine, and an ignition interlock requirement. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

The last couple of years have seen the push for requiring ignition interlocks for all OWI offenses, including first offenses, gain momentum. Currently 28 states have such laws. Wisconsin is resistant to this trend, just as it resists the near-universal tendency to treat a first OWI offense seriously. Some blame the state’s Germanic drinking culture, and the state tops most surveys about drinking and drunkenness. However, other states with similar roots in the old country manage to do a better job reducing their OWI stats.

Try Ignition Interlocks First

Vehicle seizure and impoundment do have an effect on recidivism, according to a NHTSA study. So there’s evidence that this measure should be considered. But taking away a vehicle will not help an offenders get their life together. It won’t help them keep a job, obtain treatment and counseling, or stay in school. That is why ignition interlocks were invented.

By allowing an offender to drive but preventing him or her from driving while drunk, an ignition interlock protects the public. It also forces an offender to confront the problem of drunk driving every day, and make the right decision. In fact ignition interlocks are especially effective when combined with treatment, as in a sobriety court setting. Simply seizing a vehicle – or suspending a license – will not help an offender make better choices.

There appears to be a lot of resistance to Nicholson’s vehicle seizure idea, which isn’t surprising – most anti-OWI measures seem to meet with resistance in Wisconsin. It would make good sense for Wisconsin to choose a more likely target – an all-offender ignition interlock law like the one that 28 states have already passed.