Wisconsin Tries to Get Tough on Drunken Driving

MILWAUKEE (April 27) — A Wisconsin lawmaker has been jailed for his third DWI conviction — in a state with the nation’s highest rate of drunken driving, some of the weakest laws against it and a list of lawmakers convicted of it.

State Rep. Jeff Wood, an independent from rural Chippewa Falls, reported to the Columbia County jail Monday to start his 45-day sentence, days after his fellow lawmakers voted to censure him when a vote to expel him from the Assembly failed.

“There’s almost a wink-wink attitude about this here,” Nina Emerson, director of the Resource Center on Impaired Driving at the University of Wisconsin Law School, told AOL News. Among many state legislators, she said, drunken driving is “totally viewed as not a big deal.”

Wisconsin  Rep. Jeff Wood.

Tomah Police Department/AP

State Rep. Jeff Wood started his 45-day sentence Monday for his third DWI conviction.

Tomah Police Department/AP

State Rep. Jeff Wood started his 45-day sentence Monday for his third DWI conviction.

Wood’s arrest in December 2008 led not only to his third conviction; it was his third arrest for driving while impaired within a 10-month period. His other cases, for driving under the influence of prescription drugs, are still pending.

The drunken driving charge against Wood came as the Legislature was considering a “get tough” package of drunken driving laws. The reform package goes into effect July 1 but still leaves Wisconsin’s laws among the nation’s weakest.

For example, a first offense will still be just a traffic citation rather than a misdemeanor criminal charge — as it is in the rest of the country — unless (here comes the reform part) someone under 16 was in the vehicle with the drunken driver.

Drunken driving still does not become a felony in Wisconsin until the fifth conviction, unless (get ready for the reform) the fourth offense came within five years of a previous offense. Every other state makes the third or fourth drunken driving conviction a felony, Emerson said.

And lawmakers refused to allow sobriety checkpoints, leaving the state one of only a handful where the checkpoints are prohibited.

“I’m not sure where the ‘tough’ part is in this legislation,” Emerson said, “though parts of it are approaching tough.”

One tough element: The law will require ignition interlocks that prevent motorists from starting their vehicles until they pass a breath test. The restriction applies to all repeat drunken drivers and for first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or greater.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of drunken driving in the U.S., with more than 42,000 convictions last year, according to the state Department of Transportation.

More than 26 percent of Wisconsin adults surveyed admitted they had driven under the influence of alcohol in the previous year, according to a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The national average is 15.1 percent.

The epidemic reaches lawmakers and even the state’s former top law enforcement official. Then Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager was convicted of drunken driving in 2004 after a sheriff’s deputy found her state-owned vehicle in a ditch.

Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager in 2004

Andy Manis, AP

Then Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager makes a statement in 2004 about charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Besides Wood, at least three state lawmakers serving in the Legislature have been convicted of drunken driving. Within the past decade, at least four other lawmakers were arrested while in office.

Wood was previously convicted of drunken driving in 1991 and 1992. His 2008 arrest came about a month after his re-election. Prosecutors said he crashed his car into a highway sign and urinated on the side of the road. He was also charged with marijuana possession, but that charge was dropped in a plea deal.

Wood went on to be arrested in Marathon County in September 2009 and Monroe County in October 2009 for driving under the influence of drugs. Those cases are pending.

“I just want to do what’s best, take responsibility for what I did so my family can get back to a normal life,” Wood told a judge when he was sentenced earlier this month. He also paid $1,600 in fines, his driver’s license was revoked for 27 months and for two years after that he will have to have an ignition interlock installed on any vehicle he drives.

Republican Steve Nass, who sponsored the measure to oust Wood last week, said the failure of that effort “underscores the Assembly’s lack of interest in getting tough on drunk driving.”

According to Emerson, drunken driving becomes more acceptable the more people get away with it.

“It becomes: ‘I’ve driven drunk a thousand times, and nothing has ever happened to me,'” she said. “What we know in criminal justice is that in order for laws to impact people’s behavior, they need to believe they could be caught. Because otherwise they get away with it over and over, and so it becomes normalized.”


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