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OWI penalties stiffen on July 1

There are new penalties in Wisconsin drunken driving laws and the most significant are primarily aimed at teenage offenders and those with multiple infractions.

The new restrictions go into effect July 1, just in time for Independence Day weekend celebrations.

"I can see an increase in criminal cases for the county," said Lori Meyer, clerk of court.

One major increase in the penalties, a first offense drunken driving charge with a child age 16 in the car, has been increased from a traffic offense to a misdemeanor, thus making it a crime.

The other area that addresses teenagers is violation of absolute sobriety which goes from forfeiture equal to a traffic ticket to a misdemeanor offense and a $400 fine.

"A number of municipal courts in the county handle non-criminal cases such as first-offense OWI," said Meyer. "Some of the new penalties change offenses to misdemeanors that go to circuit court."

Meyer pointed out that the first offense OWI with a child under 16 in the car applies to any child, driver or passenger.

Other areas of the law applying to repeat offenders include a mandatory minimum jail time of 45 days, up from 30, for conviction of a third OWI offense. It also makes a fourth offense committed within five years of a prior offense a felony. Previously OWI-5th constituted a felony.

The new penalties also require drivers convicted of a 7th, 8th or 9th offense to serve a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence.

Even before the enhanced penalties are in place, there was a spike in drunken driving arrests in the first half of May.

Jail bookings for the period from May 4 through May 16 included 34 who were charged with drunken driving. For several individuals it was not a first-time incident.

Six were charged with OWI-3rd offense, two with OWI-2nd and two with a fourth infraction.

"We have seen, as the law began to tighten up a few years ago, the increase in drunken driving arrests has very little to do with lowering the prohibitive alcohol contents from .10 to .08," Sheriff Dennis Hillstead said.

The sheriff said many of those arrested were tested for higher alcohol levels than the former minimum and more repeat drunken drivers were pulled over.

"We haven't added any new patrol officers for four years so the OWI arrests haven't been because of more patrols," he said.

"I suspect the new laws will have an impact on the jail population," said Hillstead.

Another aspect of the new law requires first offense OWI with an alcohol content of 0.15 or higher and all second and subsequent OWI convictions and those who refuse a chemical test to install ignition interlock devices (IIDs).

The devices were not previously required for first and second-time offenders.

How to handle the new requirements for IIDs has yet to be workout in the sheriff's department. "Currently there is one place I know in the area that installs the devices, East End Auto Service in Ellsworth," said Hillstead."

"We probably install an average of two to three 'Intoxalocks' a month," said Jeff Leonard, one of the owners of East End Auto Services.

The Intoxalock is the brand of breath alcohol ignition interlock device the garage installs. It is designed to prevent an individual from operating a motor vehicle while under the influence.

"It costs $80 to install and that includes the removal fee," Leonard said, who has operated the garage with his brother for eight years. They have been installing the IIDs for about two years.

Leonard said the state contacts them for the installation and handles whatever costs are involved for the unit.

Leonard said that the new law will probably boost business but, "I don't think it will get to the level of brake jobs."

Patrol Captain Scott Knudson said the Sheriff's Department has receive several grants to add enforcement over the summer including one for $25,000 for alcohol enforcement and one for $9,900 from the Underage Drinking Coalition.

He also said the annual "Click-it or Ticket" on seat belt enforcement runs from May 24 to June 6 over Memorial Day weekend and another grant boosts up enforcement on the I-94 construction areas in the county along with the state patrol.

The grant money pays for overtime hours the patrol officers work.

"There will be extra emphasis on speeding, drinking and driving and seat belt violations this summer," Knudson said.

To read the complete list of changes in the OWI laws scheduled for July 1 contact