Target 2 Investigates: Disappearing drunk driving charges in Waupaca County

Published: May 16, 2016; Updated: May 18, 2016 WAUPACA COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) – Arrested and charged for drunk driving, but walking away with a slap on the wrist. These are the kinds of tips Target 2 has been receiving the last few months.

Tipsters have been asking us to investigate if and how this could happen in Northeast Wisconsin.

Target 2 Investigates started digging through records and uncovered what judges, prosecutors–and even defense attorneys–describe as “stunning.”

CAPTURED ON VIDEO

If pictures say a thousand words, the Waupaca County dash cam videos we uncovered tell it all.

In one video, a woman tries to complete standard field sobriety tests. She falls to the side and has problems standing on one leg.

The woman is arrested in Waupaca County for First Offense OWI. Court records show her Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) at .196, more than twice the legal limit to drive in Wisconsin.

Yet when her case goes through the Waupaca County court system, that OWI no longer exists. It was amended to a fine for Inattentive Driving.

Another video shows a woman falling during sobriety tests. She’s arrested for First Offense OWI. It turns into fines and tickets for Improper Parking and Inattentive Driving.

In another video, a man is asked to recite the alphabet.

Deputy: “You want to start at A and go to Z.”

Man: “A, B, C, D, U, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O. (stops) I’m sorry, bud.”
Deputy: “It’s alright.”
Man: “It’s been 20 years.”

He had a BAC of .17. However, his First Offense OWI charge is dismissed, and he’s charged with Endangering Safety with Use of a Dangerous Weapon.

REPEAT OFFENDERS, REDUCED CHARGES

It is not just first offenses.

One man is stopped after a deputy says he swerved over the yellow line. Dash cam video shows him swaying and nearly falling.

“If I was sober, I could not walk this line,” the man tells deputies during his field sobriety tests.

He’s arrested for Third Offense OWI with a BAC of .16. The end result after court is a misdemeanor charge of Negligent Operation of a Motor Vehicle and no record of OWI.

These are some of 30 cases in which Target 2 found drunk driving charges being reduced or completely dismissed in Waupaca County between 2010 and 2015.

Target 2 started digging into this after emails and phone calls, asking if this could really happen.

We filed open records requests for OWI arrest records from the State Hygiene Lab, which tests blood in drunk driving cases. We searched online court records for the more than 500 names we received, and quickly began finding amended charges. We filed more requests–for hundreds of pages of motions, amendments, and police reports in those cases.

We found First, Second, Third, and even a Seventh Offense OWI.

One man was arrested three separate times for Third Offense OWI in seven years, according to court records.

One of those arrests came after the man hit a parked beer delivery truck.

All three times his drunk driving charges were dismissed or reduced.

A 2009 motion says the “court is not convinced the defendant’s ability was impaired.” His blood, however, registered an alcohol content of .256.

Target 2 found other motions written by the Waupaca County District Attorney’s Office saying, “despite the vigorous prosecution (of drunk driving offenses), the State feels it will not be able to prove to a jury the defendant was operating a motor vehicle under the influence.”

We asked experts–including a former Brown County prosecutor and a standard field sobriety test instructor and police officer–to review the motions and police reports.

“I conclude, from my experience as a standard field sobriety instructor, a criminal justice instructor, even as an expert witness in OWI cases, and as a practitioner, that the officers did everything they were supposed to do consistent with their training,” said Mike Knetzger. Knetzger is a police officer, Standard Field Sobriety Instructor, and NWTC Criminal Justice Instructor.

WHY WERE THE CHARGES REDUCED?

Target 2 asked judges–both presiding and retired, current and former prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement if reducing charges is common.

Of the 24 people we talked to, not one of them said it is a common practice.

They used words like “stunning”, “shocking”, and “embarrassing.”

The judges said they’ve either never signed off on one, or can only recall it happening one or two times in careers spanning roughly 30 years on the bench.

However, Wisconsin law does allow it.

A prosecutor can ask a judge in a written motion to amend or dismiss, but it can only be approved “if the court finds (it’s) consistent with the public’s interest in deterring (drunk driving).”

We asked Waupaca County District Attorney John Snider why he would agree to the amendments in some of the specific cases we found, such as the Seventh Offense OWI.

He said, “I don’t know.”

Snider would only talk to Action 2 News by phone and declined an on-camera interview.

We also asked him if 30 cases is a lot. Snider said considering how many people are arrested for drunk driving, he doesn’t view it “as a large number.”

Judges and other experts used words like “stunning”, “shocking” and “embarrassing” to describe the reduced OWI charges.
Target 2 checked other counties, submitting an open records request for Calumet County, which is closest in size to Waupaca County.

We didn’t find a single OWI charge amended there in the three years of data we received.

Brown County tells Target 2 its prosecutors refuse to amend drunk driving cases and can recall very few rare exceptions where the facts warranted the amendment.

Door and Portage Counties said the same thing.

A defense attorney who handled many of these amended cases told Target 2 he’s aggressive and looks for significant issues with the evidence or traffic stop.

He said the compromise is not entered into lightly, and it’s up to a judge to make the final decision.

The experts we spoke with say in the eyes of public perception, it’s hard to dismiss or amend OWI charges.

“We need to create an environment that people believe if they drink and drive, drive drunk, that they will be arrested. And this clearly sends a message to the contrary,” Knetzger said.

A Waupaca County judge tells Target 2 the court has to rely on the “good faith” of what prosecutors present them in court, since judges are not allowed to be part of any negotiations between attorneys and prosecutors.

One of those judges, who signed off on several of the amended charges, said he doesn’t recall denying requests, again, because he relies on the expertise of prosecutors.

District Attorney Snider tells Target 2 he is ultimately responsible for all the cases going through his office and “must have approved” the amendments.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel told Target 2 he found the findings in this report “shocking.”

“Well, I first became aware of this issue thanks to your story, so we’ll inquire to try to determine what’s happening,” Schimel said.



 
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