Each year, there are nearly 44,000 drunken driving convictions statewide, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Nearly 4,000 crashes involving injuries can be attributed to drunken drivers annually.
The number of fatal crashes in Wisconsin attributed to alcohol has dropped from 330 in 2005 to 220 in 2010.
While noting that the number of alcohol-related fatalities have declined, Judge Raymond Huber finds it disconcerting that Wisconsin has the highest rate of drunken driving in the nation.
A 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 26 percent of Wisconsin adults admitted to driving while intoxicated within the prior year. The national average is 15.1 percent.
"We have the worst culture for driving under the influence," Huber said.
Huber also observed that other factors, such as safer automobiles and stricter rules regarding teen drivers, have contributed to a decline in fatal crashes overall in Wisconsin.
Although there were 110 fewer alcohol-related fatal crashes in 2010 than there were in 2005, the percentage of alcohol-related crashes consistently hovers around 46 percent.
"Wisconsin is the only state in the nation in which a first offense is not a criminal offense," Huber said.
Without aggravating factors, such as a child in the vehicle or a high blood-alcohol level, first-time offenders in Wisconsin seldom spend time in jail. However, they face fines, court costs, loss of driving privileges and increased insurance premiums.
In Wisconsin, a drunken driver is usually charged with two counts: operating while intoxicated (OWI) and prohibited alcohol concentration. Both offenses carry the same penalty, but even if a defendant is convicted of both counts, which seldom happens, only one of the penalties will apply.
To convict someone of OWI, a prosecutor has to prove that the defendant’s ability to operate a vehicle was impaired by alcohol or drugs.
To obtain a PAC conviction, a prosecutor has to prove that the defendant’s blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) was .08 percent or higher at the time of arrest. If a defendant has been charged with a fourth offense, the prosecutor needs to prove only a .02 percent BAC.
Waupaca County is part of the 8th Judicial Administrative District, which sets sentencing guidelines for its seven circuit court members. Under those guidelines, first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol level under 0.10 face a minimum court assessment of $691.50 in fines and court costs, plus revocation of their license for six months. The maximum assessment for a first-time offender with a .25 blood-alcohol level and aggravating driving factors is $899 and nine months revocation.
"Many first-time offenders are just social drinkers who were irresponsible on that occasion," Huber said. "Higher blood-alcohol levels or multiple offenses may be a sign of a more serious drinking problem."
From traffic ticket to criminal offense
A driver who is arrested after a prior OWI conviction faces criminal charges rather than a simple traffic citation.
A second drunken driving conviction has minimum penalties of $1,109 in fines and court costs, five days in jail and 12 months revocation. If the driver has a .25 BAC or above and other aggravating factors, penalties rise to a $1,676 assessment, 120 days in jail, and 18 months revocation.
When a defendant’s driver’s license is revoked, the period of revocation begins on the date they are convicted but is extended by the amount of time they are incarcerated. So, the result of five days in jail and 12 months revocation will actually be 370 days revocation.
Those with multiple OWI convictions will also be required to take an alcohol or drug assessment, which may result in mandatory counseling and developing a driver safety plan.
Penalties for a third offense range from $1,424 to $3,833, 45 days to one year in jail, and 24 months to 36 months revocation,
A fourth OWI moves from being a misdemeanor to being a felony. A defendant convicted of a fourth through sixth OWI can be sentenced to six months in jail and up to six years in state prison, depending on aggravating factors. Court assessments range from $1,953 to $4,366.
A seventh through ninth offense carries from three to 10 years of incarceration, while a 10th offense or more can be four to 12 years in prison.
"Most people on a first-time felony OWI will not go to prison; they will be put on probation," Huber said.
Among the goals of state law are to discourage recidivism and protect the public. Incarceration by itself has not proven to be an effective deterrent, especially for those who are third and fourth time offenders. That is why most of the drunken drivers sentenced to county jail are on work release.
"You put them in jail for 40 days and they no longer have a job," Huber said. "When considering the likelihood of recidivism, people who have jobs and ties to the community are less likely to commit a crime than someone who is unemployed."
Huber noted that he has sentenced habitual OWI offenders to state prison.
On May 1, Huber sentenced Daniel E. Diedrich, 50, Waupaca, to three years in state prison and two years of extended supervision. Diedrich had entered a plea of no contest to a seventh drunken driving offense.
Huber also revoked Diedrich’s license for three years, ordered him to install an ignition interlock for two years and to pay $5,429 in restitution for the damage he caused in a crash involving another vehicle.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 percent of first-time offenders will become repeat offenders.
Over the years, legislatures have enacted stiffer penalties, longer jail or prison terms, longer periods of revocation and mandatory alcohol treatment. Studies have found that legal interventions have limited success at long-term deterrence.
"By the time offenders get to the felony level, these are individuals who have serious alcohol abuse problems that are difficult to treat," Huber said. "Most experts would agree that you need multiple responses to the problem."
In Waupaca County, one of the responses is mandatory participation in a victim impact panel (VIP).
First organized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, VIPs try to move beyond the educational methods of traditional treatments to a more emotional presentation of the consequences of drinking and driving.
People who attend a VIP in Waupaca County usually hear two speakers – one is an offender and the other is someone who has been injured by a drunken driver or lost a family member in a crash caused by a drunken driver.
"When I was first elected judge, I heard about the victim impact panels in Outagamie County," Huber said. "There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the panels have some impact on reducing recidivism."
According to an Outagamie County study, 14.7 percent of offenders who attended a VIP committed another OWI offense. The recidivism rate among those who did not attend was 36.4 percent.
A more recently developed program in Waupaca County is SSTOP (Safe Streets Treatment Options Program).
Originally launched in Winnebago County, SSTOP allows second and third OWI offenders to participate in an intensive probation and treatment program.
Details of SSTOP will be the focus of the next installment in the County Post’s series on the costs and consequences of alcohol abuse.
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