BROWN COUNTY (NBC 26) — In Wisconsin, the case of Scott C. Farmer, the 47-year-old Neenah man facing charges including OWI in the crash that killed four people in Waupaca County Saturday night, brings attention to our state's long-standing issue with drunk driving.
If convicted, this would mark at least Farmer's 5th offense. Wisconsin, known for its drinking culture, has faced criticism for its regulations on drunk driving.
A significant factor contributing to this issue is Wisconsin's unique approach to the first offense of Operating While Intoxicated (OWI). Unlike other states, Wisconsin treats the first OWI offense as a civil ordinance violation rather than a criminal offense. This legal distinction has been a point of contention for victims, families and advocacy organizations for decades.
Local criminal defense attorney Aaron Schenk from Schenk Law Firm, LLC in Green Bay, shared insights on how Wisconsin's laws impact repeat offenders. He highlighted the discretionary nature of revoking a license, even after multiple OWI convictions.
“Since we're so easy on it on offense, number one, things are going to gradually increase and there's not going to be a whole lot of wiggle room as we move forward. So when you get to your second, third offense, you're dealing with mandatory jail time, if you get convicted, you're dealing with a mandatory driver's license revocation, you're dealing with a mandatory ignition interlock device, and then when you get to a fourth offense, it becomes a felony. And then when you move to a fifth or sixth defense, you're dealing with the presumptive minimum period in prison. So that's kind of how the penalties accelerate from one to five and then beyond,” Schenk says.
The attorney addressed the debate surrounding Wisconsin's unique OWI laws, acknowledging both positive and negative aspects. While the leniency of the first offense serves as a deterrent for some, others may interpret it as a mere "slap on the wrist," potentially leading to repeated offenses.
“When you get that first offense, and you do just get a slap on the wrist, for a lot of people, that's the lesson learned. They're like, 'Okay, I don't want to be in a position where I have to go to jail, or I get a criminal record. So thank you, Wisconsin, for you know, having this lenient sentence for a first offense, I'm done.' But it can be bad, or it can be negative, because some people then having just got a slap on the wrist, think to themselves, 'Wow, it's just a slap on the wrist.' And then they go get another one. And then they get another one, then they get another one."
Schenk outlined the financial and legal repercussions of OWI convictions, with the first offense costing between $350 to $1,100 in fines and a license suspension lasting 6-9 months. The penalties escalate sharply for subsequent offenses, including mandatory jail time, license revocation and felony charges.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, last year alone, 184 lives were lost in impaired driving crashes, all of which could have been prevented.