Families of drunk driving victims target lawmakers to change OWI laws

MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) Families of people killed by drunk drivers are making a bold, aggressive new push to change OWI laws in this state.

MGN Online: Drinking and Driving

Their target right now includes a bill that would create a minimum sentence of five years in prison for a drunk driver who kills someone.

Target 2 Investigates found there is no minimum law in Wisconsin and has been following the push to change that for nearly two years.

Now several families across the state are taking charge, trying to get the attention of lawmakers.

From a website to Facebook, Twitter and a petition on change.org, families of loved ones killed by drunk drivers want change, and they want it now.

"I have to do it for my son, so other people don't have to go through what I'm going through," says Marla Hall. "It's the only way that keeps me going."

Marla and her family started a bold campaign just six weeks ago to change Wisconsin's OWI laws.

Their work is already gaining a big following, with hundreds of people Marla says are from Wisconsin joining them on Facebook and the Change petition.

She's a passionate mom, still grieving over the sudden death of her son and his three friends last November, all killed by a drunk driver going 93 miles an hour the wrong way on Interstate 94.

Marla says she's speaking up for families who can't yet find the voice to do it.

"Some people can't just do it. Well, they messed with the wrong mother. That's all I can say," she adds.

All her efforts are geared to the lawmakers in Madison that have the power to change OWI laws.

Marla was in Madison Thursday afternoon as the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety voted to create a minimum five year prison penalty for OWI homicide.

She listened as democratic Milwaukee Representative Fred Kessler, a former judge, argued prison is for people who commit certain kinds of violent crime.

"The people who belong in prison are the people who are dangerous. Now I know some of you are going to argue a drunk driver is dangerous, but there's a big difference between somebody who's an armed robber, or somebody who's a carjacker, or somebody who makes a deliberate effort and intended to commit a crime right then and there. That's different from most of the situations where people are driving and even drinking," Kessler tells the committee.

At the beginning of Thursday's hearing, Kessler proposed an amendment to reduce the five years in prison for OWI homicide to one.

He told the committee he agreed with the one year jail sentence handed down in Waupaca County for the first time drunk driver who killed Dylan Thorne in 2012.

"When I saw the case and heard the transcript of the case in Waupaca, that's probably what I would have done under those type of circumstances. In fact, I would guess that I probably have done that a number of times when I was sitting as a judge. When I had somebody that had no record of prior alcoholism, that they took a life, I just sat there and said, wow, I know the victim's family is going to permanently pay for that, but I also had people sometimes who were the sole support of their family. They were people who worked at a factory or worked at a job or were an executive in a corporation where they, if their family... If they were incarcerated for a period of time, are going to lose their job, their house, their ability to educate their children and everything like that," says Kessler.

His comments sparked a stern response from Republican Mequon Representative Jim Ott, who authored the bill.

"The person who's killed loses their job, loses their family, loses their future, loses everything! There is not any five year period where they're going to be able to get out and go free again," Ott tells the committee. "I'm not trying to incarcerate someone because they're having trouble dealing their alcohol addiction. It's because they continue to drive impaired, and that's a choice."

Now that the committee passed the five year prison minimum, representatives will try to get the bill scheduled for a full Assembly debate next month.

The senate would also take up a bill, and Marla says she plans to testify at that hearing, too.