MADISON — A proposed law looks to make it tougher on drunken driving suspects in Wisconsin, where punishments for operating while intoxicated are already considered among the most lenient countrywide.
Right now, police are able to release someone arrested under suspicion of operating while intoxicated if any of the three following conditions are met:
The initial arrest occurred more than 12 hours prior.
A chemical test shows that the individual’s blood alcohol concentration is at or below 0.04 percent.
The suspect is able to be released to “a responsible adult.”
The bill proposal — authored by state Reps. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem Lakes, and Jim Ott, R-Mequon — seeks to remove the third provision, disallowing suspects to leave custody while they may still be inebriated.
“This is about getting drunk drivers off the road,” Kerkman said.
Kerkman said that the legislation was in part inspired by an Aug. 9 incident in Kenosha County in which a nurse driving to work was struck and nearly killed by someone who had been arrested earlier that night for operating while intoxicated.
The suspect, Jesse Liddell — who is now facing two felony counts for injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle — had been arrested for speeding and failing a field sobriety test less than 2½ hours before crashing into the nurse’s vehicle, police said. Liddell was initially released from custody after his mother reportedly picked him up from jail and agreed to prevent him from driving for 12 hours, which she failed to do.
“Within half an hour of being released (from jail) he caused an accident,” Kerkman said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Pleasant Prairie Police said that Liddell caused the crash by running a red light, although he allegedly tried to blame the crash on the other driver.
The victim, Jennifer Kilburn, has since begun lobbying for changes to Wisconsin’s OWI laws, successfully catching Kerkman’s ear.
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, a retired police officer, said that he remembers occasionally arresting one person for OWI multiple times in a single night.
“It’s unbelievable that they get back in the car,” Wanggaard, who supports Kerkman’s and Ott’s bill, told The Journal Times.
Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where first-offense OWI is not considered a crime. The minimum fine is $150 and a six-month license suspension. Illinois’ minimum fine is $750. Minnesota doesn’t have a minimum, although its maximum is $1,000.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a drunken driver was involved in approximately three out of every 10 traffic fatalities in 2015, claiming about 10,000 lives that year. On top of that, the economic cost of drunken driving — spread across victims, perpetrators, government spending and health care — costs Americans approximately $44 billion per year, according to the NHTSA.
However, fatalities and crashes connected to OWI are dropping. In 1979, there were nearly 30,000 alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin with more than 5,000 fatalities, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. In 2015, less than 400 drivers were killed in alcohol-related crashes in the state with 5,174 alcohol-related crashes in total, according to the state DOT.
This new bill isn’t the first time Kerkman has tried to clamp down on drunken drivers. In March 2018, she backed a bill that made it more difficult for those with OWI convictions to get their licenses reinstated and also made it easier for the state to revoke someone’s license after multiple OWI convictions.
Four years prior, she supported another bill that failed to pass, which would have required first-time offenders to make a court appearance. Doing so, she hoped, would “bring seriousness to the fact that they were caught,” she told WisconsinWatch.com in 2014.
Kerkman, whose 61st Assembly District includes all of Kenosha County except for the City of Kenosha, the Town of Wheatland and the portion of Somers east of Highway 31, hopes that the OWI punishments already on the books, in addition to her new proposal, will deter people from drinking and driving in the first place.
Last week, Kerkman and Ott started circulating their new proposal in Madison, hoping to find co-sponsors for the bill.