Wisconsin governor Tony Evers signed a bill yesterday that established a mandatory minimum of five years prison time for people convicted of homicide while driving drunk. The bill applies to both first-time and repeat offenders.
In Wisconsin, the first drunk driving offense is treated as a civil violation. You can have your driver’s license suspended, need to pay a fine, and have additional penalties, but it is not considered a crime. .
Killing someone while driving drunk is a felony.
And under a bill signed into law yesterday, those convicted of a drunk driving homicide would be sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison. Representative Jim Ott, a Republican from Mequon, introduced the bill. He told Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos on a recent episode of the Wisconsin Assembly GOP’s podcast, The Right Angle, that, for him, this issue is personal.
“Back when I was fourteen years old, back in September of 1961, a classmate and I were crossing state street in Milwaukee,” said Ott. “We’re standing in the crosswalk and suddenly out of nowhere a car came careening down the street and smashed into him. Within an instant, he’s laying in the street, writhing in pain. He was taken to the hospital and died the next day from his injuries. Obviously could have easily been both of us hit , or if our positions would have been opposite I would have been the one who was hit. In an instant you see a young life snuffed out, and for what?”
Ott is not the only member of the legislature who has lost someone because of drunk driving. Representative Jimmy Anderson, a Democrat from Fitchburg who signed on to the bill, lost his parents and brother, and was paralyzed from the waist down, by a car crash caused by a drunk driver. He shared his story on the Assembly floor in early October.
“The reason why I’m in this wheelchair is because a drunk driver ran a stop sign at 60 miles an hour when I was on my way to celebrate my birthday with my family,” said Anderson. “It was me, my mother, my father and my 14-year-old little brother. He slammed into that side of our vehicle running a stop sign. The vehicle tumbled end over end and slammed into a palm tree. I came to hanging upside down in that car and I was staring into the lifeless eyes of my little brother. And I begged him to tell me that he was still alive.”
The Department of Transportation reported that there were over 24,000 drunk driving convictions in 2018. Over 6,000 drunk drivers were involved in crashes and 160 people died that same year.
A study from the United Health Foundation found that nearly one fourth of Wisconsin adults drink excessively, but many face few or no consequences for potentially dangerous behavior.
This morning, police in Northwestern Wisconsin arrested Mark Alan Johnson, a man from Rice Lake on what they suspect is his 15th drunk driving offense. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, his longest sentence was five years, which would make it the minimum sentence under the new law. Governor Evers told TMJ back in January he thinks the drunk driving issue should be taken more seriously.
“Whether it’s making that first thing a felony or making it more severe than it is now, I’m not in a position to say that but clearly that is an important issue,” said Evers.
Also present at the bill signing was Sheila Lockwood, an Illinois woman whose son died in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, when his drunk friend crashed the car they were in. Lockwood told TMJ yesterday that she was happy to see the bill signed into law.
“I wish it had been done a long time ago,” said Lockwood. “My son’s drunk driver would be spending a little bit more time behind bars.”
The driver Lockwood is talking about was sentenced to three years in prison. He had no previous drunk driving offenses.
The bill does allow a court to sentence people to less than the minimum if the person who died was a passenger in the defendant’s car, if the court finds that the community’s best interests will be served and the public will not be harmed. It must also put that reasoning on the person’s record.