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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — While incidents of Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) are trending downward in Dunn County, there were still 316 cases in 2019.
An OWI conviction can have a variety of impacts and implications, ranging from fines to jail time to losing your driving privileges to having your insurance company refuse to give you coverage.
The Dunn County Criminal Justice Collaborating Council held a virtual forum live-streamed on Facebook November 10 with Erik Atkinson, Menomonie police chief; Kevin Bygd, Dunn County sheriff; Judge James Peterson, Dunn County Circuit Court; Andrea Nodolf, Dunn County district attorney; and Kris Korpela, director of Dunn County Human Services.
Sarah Benedict, criminal justice coordinator in Dunn County, moderated the forum and asked questions of the panelists.
As of November 18, the CJCC forum video had 2,300 views.
The video is available on Dunn County’s Facebook page and on the county’s YouTube channel.
The 316 OWI cases in Dunn County in 2019 ranged anywhere from a first offense to a tenth offense, Benedict said.
Of those 316 — 50 percent (157 incidents) were directly related to alcohol, while 18 percent (57 incidents) were related to drugged driving, and 32 percent (109 incidents) were unspecified, she said.
All together, 53 percent of the incidents were residents of Dunn County, 47 percent lived outside of Dunn County and 15 percent lived out of state. Seventy percent of the OWIs were male offenders and 30 percent were female, which is consistent with crime in general, Benedict said.
Ages ranged from 17 to 69, with the average age being 35, and the most common age being 23, she said.
OWI offenses occur at all times of the day and night, with late evening and the “wee hours” of the morning being the most common, Benedict said.
Blood Alcohol Concentrations (BAC) ranged from a minimum of .06 to a maximum of .342 and an average of .172, she said.
The trend of drugged driving is growing, with people being under the influence of marijuana, methamphetamine, illicit drugs and prescription drugs that do not allow people to safely operate a vehicle, Benedict said.
The majority of the OWI offenses in Dunn County are high levels of intoxication, which result in high levels of risk to the public, she said.
While most people would be unconscious or even risking death from those levels of intoxicants, many of the people who committed the OWI offenses have developed enough tolerance that they are out driving, Benedict said.
Benedict asked Judge Peterson, who is chair of the CJCC, why the public should care about the number of OWI offenses in Dunn County.
The way the laws are written about OWI is related to the number of fatalities and injuries caused by impaired drivers, Judge Peterson said.
As more family members have been killed and injured, the law has become more harsh, he said.
“We do not want them driving on the roads,” Judge Peterson said.
The OWI offenses cover every socio-economic group, and anyone may be driving under the influence, he said.
What kind of driving behaviors are seen with a probable OWI that put the public at risk? Benedict asked Police Chief Atkinson.
When drivers are weaving all over the road, that catches the attention of law enforcement, along with crossing the center line, driving into the ditch and driving out of the ditch, Police Chief Atkinson said.
People who are driving impaired can also be driving with no headlights, can fail to obey stop signs and traffic signals and can fail to yield, he said.
All of those behaviors put the public at risk because other drivers are not expecting the impaired driver to cross the centerline, for example, and they don’t know how to react, Police Chief Atkinson said.
“It can be very dangerous,” he said.
How do law enforcement officers determine there may be a probable OWI? Benedict asked Sheriff Bygd.
Sometimes the Communication Center will receive a 911 call about a driver weaving all over the road or a driver committing traffic violations, Sheriff Bygd said.
If a law enforcement officer stops someone on a reasonable suspicion, he or she can usually tell within five seconds if the driver is impaired, he said.
The impaired drivers will usually think they are doing very well and handling themselves very well, but instead of handing their driver’s license to the officer, they hand over their credit card, Sheriff Bygd said.
In addition, the impaired driver will have slurred speech and glossy eyes. The person will think he is speaking very well but will not do very well on the field sobriety tests. Officers are trained to observe clues for different levels of impairment, he said.
After the officer makes a determination that someone is impaired, he or she will be handcuffed and taken for a blood draw, Sheriff Bygd said.
To which vehicles do the OWI laws apply? Benedict asked.
The OWI laws apply to any motor vehicle — commercial vehicles, automobiles, pickup trucks, buses, Police Chief Atkinson said.
The OWI laws also apply to motorized bicycles and scooters — any vehicle that operates on a road, Sheriff Bygd said.
Benedict asked about snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.
Recreational vehicles are under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Natural Resources, Police Chief Atkinson said.
Unless they are operating on a road, Sheriff Bygd added.
Benedict asked the sheriff about what he sees in relation to drugged driving.
“Drugged driving is as dangerous as alcohol if not more dangerous,” Sheriff Bygd said.
Law enforcement officers are seeing people under the influence of methamphetamine throughout the county, he said.
Alcohol and marijuana can be detected by odor, but people think other drugs, such as methamphetamine or narcotics, cannot be detected. People under the influence of drugs are going to the grocery store at noon, and they are hauling their kids around, Sheriff Bygd said.
Sheriff’s deputies often see people who are under the influence of both alcohol and methamphetamine at the same time, he said.
One-third of all arrests involve people under the influence of restricted controlled substances. If 100 people are arrested for impaired driving, 33 of them will have been engaging in drugged driving, Sheriff Bygd said.
Benedict asked District Attorney Nodolf about the definition of OWI.
OWI applies to any restricted substance that creates impairment in the operator above the legal limit, Nodolf said, noting that OWI can also include prescription drugs prescribed to the person taking them if the side effects make it dangerous to operate a vehicle.
Blood draws are sent to the state crime lab in Madison and have a fast turnaround time while drug testing takes longer, usually six to nine months, she said.
If someone is above the limit on the Preliminary Breath Test (PBT), Nodolf said she will file the case right away and then wait for the test results from the crime lab.
Some people want to get the case resolved as quickly as possible, so the time frame for an OWI can be a few months to longer than a year and up to two years if the person goes to trial, Nodolf said.
Nodolf said there have been a number of cases she knows she will never forget.
One was a student who was hit by an impaired driver and ended up in a wheelchair.
Her life was never going to be the same, and “she was following the rules,” Nodolf said.
In other cases, people have lost loved ones “out of the blue,” she said.
The penalties for OWI are strict because of the severity of the consequences to others, Nodolf said.
Difficult cases take time, and once they are resolved, “I don’t know if anyone wins,” she said.
Benedict asked Judge Peterson about the penalties for OWI
The first offense in Wisconsin is not criminal, although if it fits in with other charges in a certain way, it can become criminal, but second offenses and beyond become much more serious, Judge Peterson said, noting that he has been practicing law for 35 years, started as a defense attorney and became a prosecutor in 1988.
A fourth offense OWI is a felony and requires a lifetime revocation of driving privileges, he said.
Second offenses and beyond have a mandatory minimum sentence. Fifth and sixth offenses have mandatory prison time of 18 months while seventh, eighth and ninth offenses require a sentence of three years in state prison and extended supervision. A tenth offense has a minimum sentence of four years, Judge Peterson said.
There are stiff consequences for OWI, and state legislators say they want to deter impaired driving, Judge Peterson said.
The deterrent effect will not happen if people are not aware of the penalties, he said.
Judge Peterson noted that he sees people in their 60s, 70s or 80s who end up going to prison for a long time because of their subsequent OWI convictions.
If people have a blood alcohol content of .15 on their first offense, and for second and subsequent offenses, the ignition interlock is required, he said.
Benedict asked Korpela, the DHS director, about implications outside of the courthouse.
OWI convictions have a huge impact on a person’s car insurance, Korpela said.
After your first offense, you are required to have a form with you called an SR22 that can only be obtained through an insurance carrier, except your regular carrier will not issue one, requiring you to go through a high-risk insurance carrier. The high-risk carriers also are required to report it if you drop coverage, she said.
If there is more than one person on your insurance, such as a spouse or your children, the non-standard high risk insurance will then cover all of them. Standard carriers often will not insure you if you have a second or subsequent offense, Korpela said.
If you live with someone and that person is not your spouse but has an OWI, because you have the same address, your insurance may cancel your insurance plan, she said.
People convicted of OWI also must complete an alcohol assessment, which must be scheduled within 72 hours of conviction and costs $285, Korpela said.
People with an OWI must develop a driver safety plan and take classes. The class for a first offense is 21 hours, the class for a second offense or more is 33 hours, and the cost of the classes is $265 to over $350, she said.
If you do not follow your driver safety plan, you must pay to have it re-instated, and if you do not complete the class within a year, you have to start all over and pay for the class again, Korpela said.
One resource that is available is “Make the Safe Choice” on the Dunn County website — www.co.dunn.wi.us/makingthesafechoice, Benedict said.
The web page lists the telephone numbers for area taxi services so people can have a safe ride home and also includes information about penalties for OWIs.
Treatment resources, such as Arbor Place, are available in Dunn County, and other outpatient and residential treatment centers are available nearby, such L.E. Phillips in Chippewa Falls, Korpela said.
You can also do a Google search for “recovery based” chats, forums and meetings. Resources such as Crystal Meth Anonymous and Marijuana Anonymous are available, and you can seek help from them without leaving your living room because many of them are meeting virtually now during the pandemic, she said.
Many options are available through the court system, too, such as treatment court or a pre-charge agreement that requires eduction, Judge Peterson said.
The court can offer incentives, such as probation, but the public wants the courts to use punishment in serious cases, he said.
If an impaired driver kills someone, the driver can face up to 40 years in prison, Judge Peterson said.
“I have not met a defendant yet who intended to kill someone while drunk,” he said.
Some of the more serious cases in Dunn County are because of impaired drivers on Interstate-94, Judge Peterson noted.
Some defendants are completing hundreds of hours of community service to reduce the amount of jail time, he said.
OWIs are “avoidable offenses” because people can make choices to avoid an OWI, Benedict said in conclusion.