Milwaukee elected leaders back Republican bill to criminalize driving on suspended, revoked license

“I think citing someone 36 times is a joke,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard.
Drivers in Milwaukee.png
Posted at 9:16 AM, Oct 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-04 10:16:39-04

MADISON, Wis. — Behind speeding, driving with a suspended license is the second most commonly issued ticket in Milwaukee and the state as a whole. Currently, that citation alone comes with a fine.

“I think citing someone 36 times is a joke,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard.

The Republican state senator cited a TMJ4 report Tuesday in front of state lawmakers. It exposed how one Milwaukee driver has been pulled over dozens of times while driving on a revoked license and has only been fined for that offense.

“There is no reason to follow the law,” Sen. Wanggaard said.

Sen. Wanggaard used our story as an example of a loophole in state law. Driving without a license in Wisconsin comes with a municipal ticket no matter how many times the driver is caught.

Last year in Milwaukee, municipal court records show more than 8,000 drivers were caught operating on a suspended or revoked license.

“Penalties for operating without a license are nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Sen. Wanggaard said.

Sen. Wanggaard authored legislation to turn that municipal court fine into a criminal offense.

“Driving in the state of Wisconsin is a privilege,” he said.

Under the bill, a driver caught at least twice operating on a revoked or suspended license would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor which comes with up to nine months in jail.

Someone caught at least four times would be considered a habitual traffic offender. On top of the misdemeanor charge, they would lose their driving privileges for at least five years.

Anytime they’re caught driving while revoked or suspended after that and they would face a felony.

“This just seems crazy,” said Sen. Kelda Roys.

The Madison Democrat pointed out that the number one reason drivers have their license suspended in Wisconsin is for failing to pay a municipal ticket, not necessarily for dangerous driving behavior. She thinks the legislation would criminalize poverty.

“What we have here is a bill that punishes people who don’t have the money,” she said.

The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee studied this bill. It says it would create around 100,000 new criminal cases each year.

The state’s public defender's office says the court system wouldn’t be able to keep up.

“This bill doesn’t have a single Democrat signed on as a sponsor. Some are worried about the disparities that could worsen if this bill were to become law. What is your response to that?” reporter Ben Jordan asked.

“When you're out there and you're enforcing the law, it doesn't make any difference who the person is or whether the person is male or female or white, Black, Hispanic it makes no difference,” Sen. Wanggaard replied.

While the bill remains partisan, a majority of Milwaukee alders are lobbying for it.

"My message is we don't want your money, we want compliance,” said Ald. Lamont Westmoreland.

Westmoreland attended the public hearing in Madison, but he says he’s neutral on the increased punishment.

"It's one of those things that's kind of tough to what point do you criminalize somebody for driving while suspended, driving while revoked but at the same time, people have to follow the law,” he said.

This bill is still early on in the legislative process. Sen. Wanggaard’s office says it’s expected to pass the Republican-controlled legislature, but then Gov. Evers would get the final say.