License suspensions for underage drinkers at issue
MADISON, Wisconsin – Wisconsin is on the brink of a crackdown on repeat drunken drivers, but disagreement over license suspensions for underage drinkers could sink those efforts. The state Senate and Assembly have passed separate bills that increase penalties for repeat offenders, using a graduated scale of penalties linked to how intoxicated the repeaters were at the time of arrest.
Provisions of the two measures are similar, but the Assembly bill goes a step further: It punishes underage drinking violations with driver’s license suspensions regardless of whether those drinking offenses are linked to driving.
“We have to send a message to young people early on: If you drink, you’re not driving,” said state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greenfield), architect of the Assembly bill.
The Assembly bill gives judges the ability to suspend driver’s licenses for up to a year for first-offense underage drinking, and requires a yearlong suspension on a second underage drinking violation. Three-time offenders within two years would face a mandatory two-year suspension. But the author of the Senate bill has indicated he will not accept the Assembly’s linkage between driving privileges and offenses such as trying to buy beer with a fake ID card.
“The idea of suspending licenses for drinking infractions is just not one that is going to pass the Senate. There’s no way we give up on that one,” said Dave Begel, a spokesman for Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee), who was out of town and unavailable for comment. George’s bill – passed by the Senate on a 33-0 vote – allows judges to suspend a minor’s license for up to a year on a second underage drinking offense, but only if the violation involves a car. A third offense that is vehicle related could draw up to a two-year suspension.
“Driver’s licenses have to do with driving,” Begel said. “If there are driving offenses, then let’s deal with the driver’s license. If you’re riding in a car, that’s a different situation. If it’s trying to buy beer, there are already adequate provisions to deal with that.”
The Assembly has called for a conference committee to hash out the differences in the two bills, but the Senate has yet to respond.
“The Senate is always willing to discuss, as long as there are things to discuss. We never close the door,” Begel said.
Stone says he is open to compromise, but underscores what he sees as the need for tougher sanctions on alcohol use by young people.
“So many times we go after the retailers, but we have to put some focus on the underage people who attempt to buy and consume alcohol,” Stone said. “These penalties might affect the way they deal with alcohol for the rest of their lives.”
Kristin Wegner, executive director of the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said her group favors the Assembly bill and the sanctions on underage drinking.
“There’s got to be a way to reach kids, and a driver’s license is very important to them,” Wegner said. “There’s got to be a serious message sent to kids about alcohol, whether or not it’s related to driving.”
There seems to be room for negotiation on some of the bill’s other differences. George and Stone agreed that the penalties on repeat drunken drivers, especially those who are heavily intoxicated, need to be toughened.
Both the Assembly and Senate bills double, triple and quadruple fines for repeat offenders, based on their blood-alcohol content. The graduated scale of penalties in the Assembly bill starts with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15, while the Senate’s begins at 0.17.
For instance, a third-time offender with a blood-alcohol level of between 0.15 (0.17 in the Senate version) and 0.199 would have fines double to between $1,200 and $4,000. For a blood-alcohol level of between 0.20 and 0.249, fines would triple to between $1,800 and $6,000 and for those with levels higher than 0.25, fines quadruple to between $2,400 and $8,000. In Wisconsin, a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 is considered evidence that an adult driver is intoxicated.
MADD also objects to the Senate raising the blood-alcohol level to 0.17. “It got watered down in the Senate,” Wegner said. “We would like to see it stay at 0.15.”
The Assembly bill allows judges the discretion to install an ignition interlock device for first-time offenders, while the Senate version allows it after one or more prior suspensions, revocations or convictions.
And both bills require absolute sobriety – defined as a blood-alcohol level of 0.02 or less – for drivers with three or more previous drunken-driving convictions.
“We’re pretty close on that stuff, and if some negotiation is required on that, fine,” Begel said. “The concept of using this measure to revoke licenses for underage drinking is one that is anathema to the Senate and one that is not an area of discussion.” Stone, whose bill passed the Assembly on a 96-3 vote last May, maintained the underage drinking penalties are needed to help prevent drunken driving in the future.
“The more severe and speedy the punishment is, the better result you get,” Stone said. “To me, it’s a part of the whole package of the bill. Part of the challenge has been to avoid having repeat offenders, and this is one way to do that.”