Erica Strandt of Chippewa Falls would have turned 24 last Friday. Strandt was killed by a drunk driver on Sept. 28, 2015, while driving home on Highway 29.

The driver, Gregg R. Irwin, 51, of Boyd had a .156 blood-alcohol level when he was arrested. He was convicted of homicide by negligent operation of a motor vehicle and was sentenced in October 2017 to serve 18 months in prison; he was released this spring. Irwin had a prior drunken driving citation, in 1992. Because it was more than 10 years ago, the 2015 offense was once again treated as a first offense.

The state Assembly passed two bills via voice vote on Thursday that would strengthen OWI rules. The measures now head to the Senate.

Under the bills:

  • A person arrested for OWI-first offense must appear in front of a judge, although the offense would remain a citation.
  • A person who is arrested for a second OWI more than 10 years after the first offense would be treated like it was a second offense, and face a misdemeanor.
  • A conviction of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle will result in a mandatory minimum of five years in state prison.

Jennifer Grau, Strandt’s mother, was enthusiastic about the proposed legislation.

“It sounds like a good idea to me,” Grau said. “It would be nice if (these bills) have an impact in the future, and people not drive stupidly. I’m glad someone is taking it seriously; I wish it would have been passed earlier.”

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, serves on the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, and she sponsored an amendment that makes all second-offense OWIs misdemeanors, eliminating the loophole when offenses are 10 or more years apart.

“Wisconsin has an issue with drinking and driving,” Emerson said Thursday afternoon, shortly after the vote. “We’re the only state that still doesn’t make OWI-first a criminal offense.”

Emerson liked the idea of making the offender go before a judge.

“If doing this — making the OWI-first (offender) go to court — if that helps wake them up, it’s something we have to do,” Emerson said.

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According to the measure, titled Assembly bill 15, failure to appear in court will result in a $300 surcharge. Emerson liked that the money collected is specifically earmarked for substance abuse prevention and treatment.

Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, stressed that these changes, combined with treatment options and alcohol-related courts, are a combined effort to reduce drunken driving.

“This is another part of the whole piece, with treatment and education,” Summerfield said.

The mandatory prison sentence on OWI homicide cases is in Assembly bill 17. The bill allows for an exception if the judge determines a lower sentence “serves the best interests of the community and the public isn’t harmed,” and that the judge must place those reasons on the record. Both bills were sponsored by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon.

Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said getting the mandatory prison time in homicide cases was an important step.

“I think it’s a very appropriate bill to get passed,” James said.

James, a former Altoona police chief, doesn’t favor making OWI-first offense a crime. He said the requirement to appear before a judge seems like a good compromise.

“This is a good initial step; the ‘scared straight’ factor could be a benefit,” James said. “It’s someone being held accountable and being forced to face a judge. It may help them change their behavior.”

Chippewa County district attorney Wade Newell said he doesn’t comment on pending legislation, so he didn’t want to address these two bills specifically.

“In general, it’s very important to hold people accountable, especially if drinking and driving results in a death,” Newell said.

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