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Will Wisconsin criminalize first-time drunk-driving offenses?

It's the only state where first-time DWI is not a crime.

A fight is expected in the Wisconsin Legislature over a proposal from two Republican lawmakers to make first-time drunk-driving a criminal offense.

Wisconsin is the only state where a first-time DWI is considered a civil violation, and not a crime.

Currently, a first-time DWI offense – which is called Operating While Intoxicated in Wisconsin – is punishable with a fine between $150-$300 plus a $435 OWI surcharge, as well as losing your license for 6-9 months.

However, such an offense doesn't incur any jail time, and two Republican lawmakers want to change that.

Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling submitted a bill earlier this month that would make first-time DWIs a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail, while the fine would be increased to $500.

It would also make all second-time offenses a crime. Currently, a second-time offense committed by someone with no previous OWIs in the last 10 years that doesn't involve great bodily harm or homicide also carries no jail time.

Jail time doesn't kick in until a second offense within a 10-year period, which carries a sentence between five days and six months.

Ott and Darling want to toughen the law to provide a greater deterrent in a state that has its fair share of binge drinking and drunk-driving problems.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving says that Wisconsin ranked 11th in the nation when it came to the percentage of traffic fatalities involving alcohol, with drunk-driving involved in 32 percent of road deaths in 2017.

This is despite Wisconsin being only the 20th-most populous state.

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Will it pass?

The renewed effort to criminalize first-time offenses comes after the election of Tony Evers to the governor's office, with the Democrat saying during his campaign he'd be open to making such a change.

That said, the Associated Press notes that the two lawmakers face a tough task getting it through the GOP-controlled Legislature, with some Republicans opposing the proposal for being too impractical and expensive to impose.

Republican State Sen. Van Wanggaard told the AP that they want to be strict on drunk drivers, adding: "But it's not about punishing that person that made that poor choice. It's about directing them to make good choices."

Ott and Darling have provided a chance of redemption for first-time offenders, with their bill stating that their offense would be expunged from criminal records if they don't re-offend within five years.

It should be noted that while Minnesota treats first-time DWI as a criminal offense, Wisconsin is stricter when it comes to license revocation.

In Minnesota, a first-time DWI can be punishable with up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, but license suspensions start from as little as 90 days, which can be reduced to just 30 days after a guilty plea.

license revocation drunk driving Minnesota

License revocation periods for drunk-driving offenses in Minnesota.

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