Wisconsin - the state that closed the loop-hole

Wisconsin DUI: Encouraged to Run?

A Target 2 investigation has found that Wisconsin law is actually encouraging people to run from the scene of a crime. It has to do with the different penalties for killing someone in a car crash. In some cases, if a killer leaves, he can escape dozens of years behind prison bars.

It's all about the blood-alcohol test. Avoiding the test can mean avoiding a lot of time in prison for drunken-driving homicide. Now Wisconsin state lawmakers are taking action to stop that.

They were once full lives, active lives, happy lives. They were all lives cut down in an instant on a road by a car.

"My brother literally ended up in pieces."

"Most difficult thing for us to handle is the image of her alone, dying in that ditch."

But there is something even more difficult to handle. "There is evidence that Alcohol is involved in this case."

Intoxication was suspected each time, in the death of each victim, but never proved. Never proved because the drivers fled, so there was no way to test their blood-alcohol level.

"I think it's disgusting."

Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving say Wisconsin law is partly to blame. MADD's Kari Kinnard said, "There have been offenders who have come right out and said I fled the scene because I knew I was drunk and I would get a stiffer penalty."

Right now, if a driver stays on the scene of a fatal crash and fails a blood-alcohol test, he or she faces up to 25 years in prison for homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle. However, if that driver leaves, they only face six years for hit-and-run causing death.

It's a gap the Wisconsin Legislature is ready to close..

The proposal? Instead of six years for hit-and-run death, drivers who flee would face up to 25 years in prison, the same amount if they stayed on the scene and failed a Breathalyzer.

For judges like Winnebago County, Wisconsin circuit court's Tom Gritton, it's about time.

"That consistency makes sense to me," Judge Gritton said, "and I think ultimately then you leave it up to the judge to decide."

Evidence like a defendant's admission of drinking or witness accounts would be weighed, allowing judges to sentence some hit-and-run drivers as if they were caught driving drunk.

But not everyone in the legal community agrees with an increase in penalties. Criminal defense attorneys we talked with say lawmakers are assuming a lot about hit-and-run drivers.

"It shouldn't be increased just because there's some wild speculation that the person was drinking," attorney Jeff Oswald said.

Oswald says drinking doesn't automatically mean a driver was legally drunk.

"I think basically it's window dressing."

Criminal defense attorney Dennis Melowski doesn't believe hit-and-run drivers are fleeing to avoid stiffer penalties. He said, "The ultimate goal I think of people to hit and run is to avoid arrest, and that is still going to remain whether you make the penalty a hundred years in prison or 50 years."

Many judges, prosecutors, and -- especially -- families don't buy it. They believe hit-and-run drivers are aware of the stiffer sentences for drunk drivers, and that right now Wisconsin law encourages them to run.

"He took a person's life and he didn't even think twice about it," says Sue Langner, whose brother was killed by hit-and-run driver who was later caught. "Five, six years isn't anything. I think 25 years would be a good place to start."

And 25 years is what it will be, most likely. All the lawmakers we talked with said this discrepancy in the law was simply an oversight, and that it took tragic accidents to bring the problem to their attention.

Now, the Legislature is rectifying that mistake. Wednesday, the Wisconsin state Senate passed the proposal on a voice vote. The Assembly did the same a couple weeks ago.

Governor Doyle says he needs time to review the bill before he decides whether to sign it into law. But it is pretty clear how the Wisconsin Legislature feels.

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Harsher hit-and-run penalties now law in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed a bill into law Nov. 12 increasing penalties for drivers who leave the scene of an accident involving deaths or injuries.

Doyle told reporters it was unacceptable that those leaving the scene of an accident faced lesser penalties than if they had stayed and rendered what could be lifesaving aid.

“With these harsher penalties, it is my hope that we will be able to encourage individuals to stay at the scene of an accident, assist the injured and take responsibility for their actions,” Doyle said.

Under the previous hit-and-run law, penalties varied for drivers who fled the scene of an accident, depending on whether a person was injured in the accident and on the severity of injuries, Milwaukee’s WDJT TV reported recently.

Fleeing the scene of an injury accident carried a fine up to $10,000 and a prison term of 42 months. A person who failed to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in a person’s death could be fined up to $10,000 and spend up to six years in prison.

AB375 increases the penalties for someone who fails to remain at the scene of an injury accident to no more than $50,000 and 15 years behind bars. A person failing to remain at the scene of a deadly accident could face fines up to $100,000 and 25 years in prison.

Hit and Run Accidents