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Drunk drivers could face harsher penalties

3rd and 4th offenses could become felonies across the board
GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)--Drunk drivers could soon face harsher penalties for OWI’s.

Thursday, the State Assembly Judiciary Committee passed 6 bills that would enforce harsher penalties for OWI’s—including making first offenses a misdemeanor and requiring defendants to appear in court.

According to the Green Bay Police Department, Wisconsin is the only state where a 1st OWI offense is just an ordinance violation.

Green Bay Patrol Officer Mike Knetzger said, “It’s like a glorified traffic ticket.”

But some lawmakers would like to change that and law enforcement agrees.

“We can arrest a thousand drunk drivers a year and the problem still exists so there needs to be a cooperative effort between our judicial systems, our police departments, and society itself,” said Officer Knetzger.

Last year there were 44,000 drunk driving convictions in Wisconsin and in 2009, 45-percent of all fatal traffic crashes were alcohol related, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

That’s a statistic that hits home for Officer Knetzger who lost his 18-year-old daughter to a drunk driver in June 2008.  While he and other officers support harsher OWI laws, they tell us there has to be a cultural change as well.

Ashwaubenon Public Safety Commander, Randy Tews, said “The bartenders are overseeing some patrons and just because somebody is able to sit there and put the money on the bar, doesn’t mean you have to take it and serve them.  There has to be some responsibility on that part too,”

Republican Green Bay State Rep. John Klenke didn’t say whether he’d vote for these bills told Local 5 News, “I believe that minimum sentences represent the legislature attempting to micro manage the process and that this is not the way our system was intended to work.”

The State Assembly could take us these bills sometime this fall.

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