Wisconsin Assembly passes reckless driving bills; Evers signals support

This comes on the same day Gov. Tony Evers said he is ready and willing to sign the legislation into law.
WIsconsin Assembly.png
Posted at 10:18 AM, Mar 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-03 11:33:58-04

Update: Gov. Tony Evers signed this bill on Monday. The bill aims to stop reckless driving by allowing police officers to impound vehicles if owners are cited for reckless driving; have previous reckless driving convictions and have not paid forfeitures, according to a news release.

The Wisconsin Assembly passed a pair of bipartisan bills on Wednesday that would increase penalties for reckless driving offenses.

This comes on the same day Gov. Tony Evers said he is ready and willing to sign the legislation into law.

“This bill sends a message to criminals that this behavior will no longer be tolerated, and you will indeed be punished,” said Rep. Bob Donovan.

The former Milwaukee alderman made his case to his fellow members of the Wisconsin Assembly as to why he believes increasing punishments for reckless driving is long overdue.

“The last time reckless driving legislation was enhanced in the state of Wisconsin… was 1953,” he said. “This is common sense legislation. We need 2023 penalties to deal with 2023 crimes.”

The first bill authored by Rep. Donovan would double reckless driving citation fines. For instance, a first offense would go from a maximum cost of $200 up to $400. Additionally, it would double maximum jail sentences judges could impose for certain criminal reckless driving offenses.

The second bill would allow cities to pass an ordinance to authorize police to have vehicles towed if a reckless driver is pulled over and has a prior reckless driving citation that hasn’t been paid within the past four years.

“Today is all about the Republicans' year of crime and punishment,” said Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde of Milwaukee.

While both bills received support on both sides of the aisle, Rep. Moore Omokunde spoke against the legislation for not taking a holistic approach to solve the problem.

“I think it goes without saying that those penalties will fall hardest on disadvantaged communities across Wisconsin,” he said.

Support far outweighed opposition as both bills passed the Assembly 85 to 12.

“I think the message this sends is all of us here in Madison get it or at least the majority get it that we have some serious problems not only in Milwaukee, but across the state with reckless driving,” Rep. Donovan said.

At an unrelated Milwaukee event Wednesday, Gov. Evers told TMJ4 he believes the bills will be an important tool not just in Wisconsin’s largest city, but for the entire state.

VIDEO | Watch what Gov. Evers had to say on Wednesday:

Evers talks reckless driving

“I think they’re very important,” he said. “Will they be the answer? No, but they’re a step in the right direction and it sends a message to people all across Wisconsin, not just in the Milwaukee area - that there’s lots of freedoms, but one of the things that, there’s not a freedom to be a reckless driver and hurting people.”

The Wisconsin Senate passed the tow ordinance bill Wednesday 30 to 1. It’s expected to pass the other reckless driving bill that would double fines and maximum sentences next month.

Wisconsin reckless driving bills gain momentum on both sides of the aisle

By Ben Jordan, Mar 14, 2023

Reckless driving bills gain momentum among Wisconsin lawmakers on both sides of the aisle

A pair of bipartisan bills that would increase penalties for reckless driving in Wisconsin continue to gain momentum at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Just a week after the bills were approved by a State Assembly committee, the State Senate held its public hearing Tuesday in a committee. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers spoke in support of the legislation.

"They are laughing at our police and they are making a mockery of the rule of law in our criminal justice system," said State Rep. and former Milwaukee alderman Bob Donovan. He says he thinks the most egregious reckless drivers do not fear the current punishments for getting caught.

That's why he authored a pair of bills that take different approaches to increasing reckless driving penalties.

"We send that message to the citizens that we, the elected leaders of the state of Wisconsin, hear you," said Donovan.

The first bill would double the fines for reckless driving citations - and double the maximum jail sentences for certain reckless driving criminal offenses.

The second bill would give cities and towns the option to tow vehicles if a person is caught driving recklessly and has a prior reckless driving fine that hasn't been paid.

"My husband Aaron Strong was the victim of reckless driving," said Abbie Strong.

Strong says she returned to the Capitol for the second time in two weeks to be a voice for the victims who cannot advocate for themselves.

Her husband, a beloved pastor, was killed five months ago by a reckless driver in front of the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

"Why do you think this is an important tool?" asked Strong. "It's important because if we don't curb the problem now, it's going to continue to escalate."

Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor says she was initially skeptical of the bills until she learned the state's reckless driving fine of up to $200 hasn't changed in 70 years.

"Some people in the Milwaukee community are concerned, are specifically concerned about the doubling of maximum jail sentences. What is your position on that?" asked TMJ4's Ben Jordan.

Taylor responded, "I think they should read the legislation more closely because the truth of the matter is the amount of time and the amount of fine that connects to this particular bill is not a huge increase."

Sen. Taylor called for one tweek to the legislation.

Currently, a majority of the revenue from the increased fines would go toward the state's alcohol and drug abuse treatment program. She thinks reckless driving fines should go toward solving that issue alone.

The Senate committee that held this public hearing is expected to take a vote next week. These bills are moving even more quickly on the Assembly side. The full Assembly is set to vote on the legislation next week.

Widow of pastor killed by reckless driver gives emotional appeal to Wisconsin lawmakers

By Ben Jordan, Feb 28, 2023

Widow of pastor killed by reckless driver gives emotional appeal to Wisconsin lawmakers

MADISON, Wis. — There was emotional testimony at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Tuesday as a woman who lost her husband to reckless driving in Milwaukee advocates for change.

Ben Jordan talked to the wife of Pastor Aaron Strong as she voiced her support for a pair of bills that would increase reckless driving penalties.

Pastor Aaron Strong: Widow's emotional appeal to stop reckless driving

"My name is Abbie Strong and I'm representing the family of Aaron Strong, a victim of reckless driving," she said.

Abbie Strong broke down in front of lawmakers as she held up a picture of her family - the last photo taken before her husband Aaron was killed in October by a reckless driver.

Abbie Strong
Abbie Strong, widow of Pastor Aaron Strong.

"So reckless that the driver was driving over 70 miles per hour on the wrong side of the road through four red lights before colliding with his Nissan sedan," said Abbie Strong.

Abbie's husband Aaron was a well-known pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. The congregation left devastated by the loss - and his two children heartbroken at home.

"How has that changed your future and your children's future - living without a dad?" asked TMJ4 News reporter Ben Jordan.

Abbie replied, "my son is not going to get to go on that camping, backpacking adventure this summer. My daughter's not going to have her dad walk her down the aisle. So I need to do my part to prevent other families from having to face that loss."

Pastor Aaron Strong
Pastor Aaron Strong
Pastor Aaron Strong
Pastor Aaron Strong

Abbie is now turning her pain into purpose. Monday night she learned about a pair of bills that would stiffen penalties for reckless drivers, so she made the drive to Madison Tuesday morning to show her support for both of them.

"I have to be the face and I have to be the person that's representing my husband and all the other families. We are not the first family to walk down this road and if it's not me, who is it going to be?" said Abbie Strong.

The first bipartisan bill would double the maximum fine for reckless driving citations. It would also double the maximum jail sentence for those convicted of certain felony-reckless driving offenses.

The second bill would allow cities to pass ordinances to authorize police to tow vehicles, if a person is caught driving recklessly and has a prior reckless driving fine that hasn't been paid.

"I like that they are being proactive. They are trying to take the heartache away from families," said Strong.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson also spoke in favor of the two bills.

"What would your response be to those in the Milwaukee area who say this may be too punitive?" asked TMJ4's Ben Jordan.

"Well look, I don't want to be overly punitive on folks, but I do understand that this is a concern, a public safety and quality of life concern for people on the streets of Milwaukee," said Johnson. "So if you're going to drive recklessly in Milwaukee, this is the message: Don't do it or you're going to be paying a price."

Some lawmakers shared concerns about whether most drivers would pay the steeper fines - or if judges would utilize the lengthened maximum sentences for criminal convictions.

Abbie doesn't think the two bills would eliminate reckless driving - but she believes they would have an impact.

"I wish that no family had to go through the same loss that we are walking right now," she said.

The committee that held Tuesday's public hearing will take a vote in the near future on whether to pass these two bills. If passed, the next step would be a hearing in front of all state lawmakers.

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