Defendant’s sentence for Wisconsin drunk-driving offense reversed

In the case of State v. Williams, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued in a 2-1 decision which reversed a defendant's sentence in a drunk-driving case. The majority opinion determined that the circuit court's sentence was based on a mistaken belief that the defendant was subject to a mandatory minimum sentence. The case was sent back to the circuit court for resentencing.

The appeals court's decision is currently under review in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Background and procedural history

The defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant (OWI), seventh offense. Under the plea agreement, the defendant pled guilty to the charge, and the remaining charges against him were either dismissed, or dismissed and "read in" at the sentencing hearing. The agreement also provided that the state would recommend a six-year sentence of imprisonment, including three years of initial confinement, and that the defendant was permitted to ask the circuit court for a lesser sentence.

The defendant argued to the court that the state's sentencing statute for OWI offenses did not require a mandatory prison sentence for seventh offense OWI. The circuit court rejected this argument, and decided that the statute compelled a six-year mandatory minimum sentence, including three years of initial confinement. The defendant was sentenced to a prison term of six years' imprisonment, including three years' initial confinement and three years' extended supervision.

The defendant filed an appeal to the court of appeals.

The decision by the Court of Appeals

The court of appeals reversed. The court noted that the surrounding statutes contained mandatory language that was missing in the statute governing seventh and subsequent OWI offenses. The Wisconsin legislature included specific language in the penalty provisions for second offense OWIs through sixth offense OWIs that imposed mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, where the sentence imposes both a fine and a jail sentence of less than six months. The legislature did not include similar mandatory language for seventh and subsequent OWI offenses. The appeals court concluded that the absence of mandatory language meant that the legislature specifically intended a different meaning for seventh and subsequent OWI offenses.

The penalty statute seventh and subsequent OWI offenses contained language specifying a mandatory minimum period of confinement, but the appeals court determined that the mandatory minimum was only required if a bifurcated sentence is imposed.

Under Wisconsin law a "bifurcated" sentence consists of a term of initial prison confinement of at least one year followed by a term of extended supervision.

The appeals court determined that the penalty statute for seventh and subsequent OWI offenses did not require the imposition of a bifurcated sentence and a sentencing court was not prohibited from the imposing probation.

Contact an attorney

Individuals who are faced with drunk driving or other criminal charges should seek the advice and assistance of a competent attorney experienced in defending these matters to ensure that their rights are protected.