Wisconsin laws are among the weakest in the country when it comes to drunken driving. Two years ago, lawmakers made the biggest changes since the ’80s. This spring, legislators want to try to toughen them again.
Paula Perrin, the seven-time OWI recipient I interviewed for this story, offered a unique perspective that I would never otherwise have known. Her alcohol addiction, she said, was a direct result of her inability to handle stress, especially with relationships. “I didn’t know how to live,” she told me.
Two years sober, Paula says she’s learned to avoid unhealthy relationships as well as alcohol, and to rely on herself instead of others: “I’m very independent now,” she told me. “I don’t rely on other people to make my life, if that makes sense. My happiness is what I make of it. And before, I always thought that other people were the ones that made that happen.”
My point is that the 5th OWI, 7th OWI, 8th OWI headlines we read are about real people, on whom changes in the law will have a very real impact. Having this perspective was important, and I’m very grateful to Paula for sharing her story.
Madison - When Paula Perrin got her first drunken driving ticket in 1993, she laughed it off. Over the next 15 years, she was arrested five more times, jailed, charged with a felony and slapped with a $2,400 fine.
In 2009, she drank and got behind the wheel for the final time.
“I still thought I would not get caught again,” Perrin, 40, recalls. “And I didn’t think I was that (drunk).”
When police pulled her over in 2009, Perrin had a blood alcohol content of 0.19 – more than twice the legal limit . It was her seventh drunken driving offense.
In Wisconsin, multiple OWI cases such as Perrin’s are far from abnormal. So far, the Milwaukee County sheriff’s office reports 343 OWI cases since January, 82 of them third, fourth or fifth offenses. Wisconsin will likely see additional arrests stack up this Fourth of July, a holiday that in past years saw an average 195 OWIs statewide, a holiday number outdone only by New Year’s Day.
Despite figures such as these, Wisconsin state laws penalizing drunken driving are among the weakest in the nation, a fact some lawmakers want to change.
Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) is planning to introduce legislation that, among other changes, would make a person’s third OWI a felony. Currently, the felony starts at the fourth OWI conviction within five years.
Darling sought to pass the measure in 2009 but faced opposition from those in the Legislature and state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who were worried about costs attached to the bill. Nonetheless, now that recalls and the collective bargaining dispute have died down, Darling wants to give the legislation another shot.
“We have to get to a point where people are going to think about driving when they’re impaired,” Darling says. “Now is the time to take another look at drunken driving.”
A traffic offense
Under current law, the first drunken driving charge is a traffic offense and gets listed as a crime if a child younger than 16 is in the car. Wisconsin is the only state to treat first offenses this way. Second and third offenses are criminal misdemeanors with fines attached. A person’s fourth OWI within five years is charged as a felony.
For Perrin, the first few offenses were expensive, but not overly problematic. “People didn’t think it was a big deal,” she says.
As for the felony, “It just put me in more stress. I had more bills to pay that I couldn’t handle already.”
A felony comes with a hefty fine, along with jail time and a black mark on a person’s record that makes it difficult to obtain employment.
Until 2009, the felony bar was set at five. Following the Journal Sentinel’s “Wasted in Wisconsin”investigative series, legislators moved the felony to fourth offense, toughened first offenses and required repeat offenders to install ignition interlocks, which prevent a vehicle from starting unless drivers prove their sobriety by blowing into an attached Breathalyzer.
At the time, Darling pushed for tougher penalties but couldn’t find enough support.
“Our laws, even having changed them two years ago, are still much weaker than most others states,” Darling says. “We still have so many repeat offenders.”
All but seven states set OWI felonies at third offense or below. Most states put this within 10 years or more, rather than Wisconsin’s five. The only states with penalties weaker than Wisconsin are those that impose no OWI felonies at all, according to data compiled by the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Resource Center on Impaired Driving.
During next spring’s legislative session, Darling wants to move the felony charge to a person’s third offense and is considering working to standardize sentences. She and Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) are also exploring a pilot program for sobriety checkpoints, as well as treatment programs for repeat offenders, to address the underlying causes of OWIs, such as alcoholism and drivers’ misplaced confidence that they won’t get caught.
“People drive drunk on such a regular basis, without any consequences,” says Nina Emerson, director for the Resource Center on Impaired Driving. “People have to believe that they’re going to be apprehended for the severity of the penalty to really carry weight.”
Emerson favors a multifaceted approach, including saturation patrols – increased police forces tasked with spotting signs of an OWI – and Darling’s suggested sobriety checkpoints, mandatory stops where officers check individual drivers for signs of alcohol.
Despite a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the checkpoints’ legality, Wisconsin prohibits the sobriety stops. Opponents cite concerns over invading drivers’ privacy and the cost of implementing the checkpoints – $2,000 apiece, according to estimates from the state Department of Transportation.
Supporters of the checkpoints, such as Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., point to studies from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed an average 20% reduction in drunken driving. Although he said checkpoints could “tremendously” help, Clarke doesn’t see support from the Legislature, where sobriety checkpoint legislation consistently fails and a bill from Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) to launch a pilot program died in committee last year.
Instead, Clarke advocates for criminalizing a driver’s first OWI and toughening judges’ sentencing standards with mandatory minimum jail time.
Prison and fines are enough to deter the average driver, but most repeat offenders, such as Perrin, have a serious substance abuse problem.
“They could have given me 10 years, but if it didn’t fix what was wrong . . . I guarantee I would have been back out, drinking and probably driving,” she says.
After being jailed for her seventh conviction, Perrin enrolled in an early-release program that included mandatory treatment that helped her recognize the relationship issues at the root of her drinking problem.
Perrin’s struggle also impacted her three children, whom she identifies as the real victims of her alcoholism.
Two weeks before completing treatment, Perrin received word that her oldest son, apparently fighting with his girlfriend, committed suicide while drinking. “I taught him that,” she reflects.
June 19 marked three years of sobriety for Perrin, and two years since her son’s suicide. He was 22.
“I made it this far without drinking because of his death,” Perrin says. “It keeps me going forward, and I know that he’d be proud of where I am today.”
Today, Perrin speaks across the state and serves on the Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, where she says she offers “an alcoholic’s perspective” on drunken driving.
Emerson cautions that treatment programs depend on the individual, “and some people may not succeed the first time.” But, she says, many of those who complete the program stay sober permanently.
On the other side of the issue, Clarke says while treatment may be necessary, repeat offenders should foot their own bill, not the state. That’s because treatment programs – similar to sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols – add cost to already expensive enforcement efforts.
Just lowering the felony charge from fifth to a fourth offense in 2010 cost an estimated $82 million, but Darling believes the state has sufficient resources to “realign what we have for priorities” if the felony gets lowered again.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Justice still is absorbing the impact from the 2009 felony change, says spokeswoman Dana Brueck. She noted that more felonies mean more appeals, as well as higher demand on the State Crime Laboratory to process samples. The bill would increase the caseload for prosecutors, probably requiring new hires and likely costing more than $1.2 million, according to a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
But Darling insists that when dealing with OWI legislation, “We have to make that commitment.”
“Whenever we talk about drunken driving, all these huge costs come in,” Darling says. “But the point is, we just keep getting these repeat offenders and then that has a cost, as well. It’s not really being considered.”