Sobering Thoughts: What If We Allowed OWI Convictions to Expire?

The debate continues about whether an OWI offense should be allowed to expire after a set amount of time. Attorney Mark Powers weighs in.

It’s an interesting question. Should we “forgive and forget” when it comes to the manner in which the legal system handles drunk driving convictions? After a set amount of time, should a past conviction be allowed to expire instead of remaining on a person’s record?

Right now, Wisconsin has a “look-back factor” that goes back to 1989. If you’ve ever had a prior conviction going back to January 1, 1989, that conviction can and will be used against you in subsequent offenses. The trick is, on an OWI first or second offense, there’s a 10-year window. 

For example, let’s say you committed your first OWI offense in January 2000.  If you were charged with another first offense after January 2010, you would, in effect, be outside that 10-year window and would be charged with a first offense. So there is a bit of a grace period if you are outside of 10 years with your second offense.

When we work with anything other than a second offense, third or higher, the court looks at your record going back to January 1, 1989.  For a few years, if you had .08 to .10 blood alcohol level OWI offense, and you didn’t have another OWI within 10 years, this offense would be wiped off your record. This is no longer the case since the new Wisconsin legislature changed the OWI laws in 2010.

When we use the term “grace period,” a number of things come into play. For example, if you get a second OWI outside that 10-year period, you are charged with another OWI first offense on your ticket.  It used to be more expansive prior to the law change where if you didn’t get one in that 10-year window, that prior offense was wiped out altogether. Today, if you get two outside that 10-year period, the court will look all the way back lifetime until 1989 excepting OWI homicides, instead of letting that first offense be wiped off your record.  This means if you received OWI convictions in 1990 and 2001 that while those would both be non-criminal first offenses, any third offense would be treated as a criminal third offense.

The question now is should we go back to letting that original offense expire after 10 years? In this day and age, there is a public policy concern regarding “forgive and forget” because society now expects that if you are charged with an OWI, that needs to be known by everybody because repeat OWI offenses and those who continue to drink and drive are threats to society.  We’re talking about people dying or getting seriously injured on our roads and this line of thinking certainly makes sense.

Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that has a ticket for an OWI first offense so, in effect, you’re already getting a break in our state if you get an OWI first offense. Those who advocate for the “forgive and forget” approach are often people who are applying for jobs or are going through their careers where an OWI on their record is a definite hang-up. 

Again, the sword cuts both ways because an OWI first offense in this state is just a ticket offense. It’s not a crime so the end result is public policy dictates that your record should be maintained.  OWI offenses can’t be expunged so if you get one, it’s on your record, in effect, forever.

In a nutshell, it doesn’t appear that the courts will be allowing OWI offenses to “expire” anytime in the foreseeable future. People need to understand that by running the risks of drinking and driving, they are exposing themselves and many other people to far reaching negative consequences. Certainly, nobody wants to hurt or kill anybody as a result of drinking and driving. Nobody wants to go to jail.

Remember, when you get your first OWI offense, it’s not like getting a speeding ticket and you get your license points back after a year. This is something that anytime an employer or school wants your driving record, they are going to see that OWI and may think twice about offering you employment or schooling.

An OWI offense will stay with you for many, many years to come. Think about that the next time you get the urge to party hardy and get behind the wheel.

About Attorney Mark Powers
Attorney Mark Powers is a partner at the criminal defense law firm of Huppertz & Powers, S.C. in Waukesha. Previously, Powers served as an Assistant District Attorney with the Waukesha County District Attorney's office and is currently serving as a municipal judge in North Prairie. Hefocuses in the area of criminal defense, and has handled many cases involving operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, domestic disputes, and drug offenses.

Powers attended Valparaiso University School of Law, where he received his Juris Doctorate. Prior to law school, Mark attended the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse where he received his bachelor of science in Political Science.

For more information, please call 262.549.5979 or visit  www.waukeshacriminalattorneys.com.

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Voice of reason January 09, 2013 at 03:13 AM
I totally disagree with robin and all of his/her followers! If I person can prove themselves to have learned a lesson from what could have been a stupid mistake. Not every person that has a first OWI will be a repeat offender! That's like saying that you should be punished for life for a stupid mistake you might have done as a teen. Robin have you ever made a mistake? Or are you perfect? Should you be punished for life for whatever you may have done wrong? Should you be held down from a decent job for something you did 10+ years ago? Not all first OWI offenders are the hardened criminals you make them out to be!
C. Sanders January 10, 2013 at 02:41 AM
If you don't care to walk, get a ride, hire a taxi or sleep in the street .... OWI should involve some form of waterboarding to instill a new behavior.
Terry January 11, 2013 at 03:03 PM
There are things that you can do in this world that close doors in your future. If I get absolutely plastered one night, and go out on my porch and start firing a rifle into the air, the consequences of that will follow me the rest of my life. And it should. Doors will close for me. If I get plastered and drive, I am doing the exact same thing. I am endangering the lives of everyone around me, just like I would if I was standing on the porch with that gun. Getting caught for it, will close doors for me. Actions have consequence, and yes, some of them are long lasting. Protecting people from that though, does not promote learning.
Jaime Lannister January 14, 2013 at 05:45 AM
Robin, your plan places about 1 in 5 Wisconsin citizens in prison at any given time, and 1 in 20 working as prison guards. How do you plan to pay for this?
Jaime Lannister January 14, 2013 at 06:00 AM
It's ironic how many folks seem to believe that beating drunk drivers with the proverbial bigger and stronger club is the answer. Give the drinking population an affordable and convenient form of safe transportation and your drunk driving problem will go away. I for one do not drink and drive, but I am also smart enough to see that the vast majority of the people who live here cannot pay $80 every time they go out for a round trip cab ride like I do.


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