Reckless driving in Milwaukee – what are lawmakers doing to address the situation?

Milwaukee’s reckless driving problem seems to be getting worse.  What are lawmakers doing to address it?

Turn on the news any night of the week, and you’re nearly guaranteed to see a headline dealing with stolen cars or reckless driving in Milwaukee.  From the so-called “Kia boys” stealing cars, to various individuals speeding through the city, to a deliberately swerving vehicle crashing into a parked school bus, Milwaukee residents have seen it all.  Media coverage of the dangerous driving problem seems to indicate that it’s getting worse.  Residents are concerned and have regularly called on local leaders to address the problem.

Lawmakers have finally responded.  City ordinances and a statewide change in criminal laws dealing with these situations aim to combat the problem.  Whether new laws will fix the situation remains to be seen, but the purpose of this blog post is to describe those changes.

Van Severen Law Office, S.C. is a criminal defense law firm focused on helping individuals work through tough situations.  This even includes reckless driving.  We recognize everyone makes mistakes, and we’re here to help you move forward in your life through criminal charges.  Contact us 24/7 at (414) 270-0202 to begin speaking with one of our attorneys.

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Increased penalties, local ordinances, and state criminal laws seek to fix a problem that’s getting worse with time:

In 2022, Milwaukee Police Officers issued 496 reckless driving citations, a 32% increase from 2021.  During the same time period, there were 88 motor vehicle deaths, with 32 of those involving pedestrians.  Compare this to nearly a decade prior, in 2013, when the county experienced only 5 pedestrian deaths.

Importantly, contrary to what some might assume, that pedestrian death figure isn’t explained by an increase in population.  Milwaukee actually experienced the opposite: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Milwaukee’s population decreased during that time period.

Milwaukee ordinances dealing with reckless driving:

Not all situations involving reckless drivers are automatically criminal.  Simply driving recklessly and not causing any physical harm to another, with no driving record, can result in a non-criminal consequence.  In other situations, such as those involving great bodily harm, criminal reckless driving penalties apply.  In another situation, numerous reckless driving tickets, even if no one was harmed, is enough to earn a misdemeanor charge.

Below, we’ve broken down some new developments in 2023 reckless driving law:

2023 Wisconsin Act 9 – increases penalties for many offenses involving reckless driving

2023 Wisconsin Act 9 applies to ordinance violations and criminal penalties for reckless driving.  The new law doubled or increased many old penalties:

  • First offense reckless driving citations were previously punishable with fines ranging between $25.00 and $200.00.  New penalties include fines between $50.00 and $400.00.  This effectively doubles fines for first offense reckless driving tickets.
  • Second offense reckless driving citations were previously punishable with fines ranging between $50.00 and $500.00. New penalties include fines between $100.00 and $1,000.00.  This also doubles fines.
  • Old law allowed for a second offense reckless driving to be punishable as a criminal offense if the driver had a previous reckless driving citation within 4 years.  New law allows for prosecutors to criminally charge a driver facing a second offense reckless driving, regardless of how long ago the first offense was.
    • The old law and new law both treat this criminal offense as an unclassified misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail.
  • Causing bodily harm while reckless driving: old fines were 30 days – 1 year county jail, $300.00 – $2,000.00 in fines, or both.  New law doubles the fines to $600.00 – $4,000.00 and increases the maximum jail penalty to 60 days – 2 years (jail).  
  • Similarly, but more serious, causing great bodily harm while reckless driving results in stiffer penalties.  This offense was previously a Class I felony, punishable by up to 3.5 years prison, $10,000.00 in fines, or both.  It is now a Class H felony, punishable by up to 6 years prison, $10,000.00 in fines, or both.

2023 Wisconsin Act 10 reorganized operating a vehicle without owner’s consent laws, created a carjacking law, and increased the carjacking penalty

Some lawmakers in Wisconsin allege that many of the reckless driving incidents that occur stem from incidents involving armed takeovers of vehicles.  Prior to Act 10, carjacking was not a named offense in the Wisconsin Statutes.  It was certainly a punishable crime, but no crime had that title.  Act 10 served to reorganize parts of section 943.23 of the Wisconsin Statutes (operating vehicle without owner’s consent) and to create section 943.231 of the Wisconsin Statutes (carjacking).  Here are some highlights from those changes:

  • Sections 943.231(1) and 943.231(2) were previously part of the law prohibiting operating a vehicle without owner’s consent.  They now fall under the carjacking statute.
    • This charge was previously a Class C felony, punishable by up 40 years in prison, $100,000.00 in fines, or both.  It is now a Class B felony, punishable by up to 60 years in prison.
  • Lawmakers created section 943.231(3), a Class A misdemeanor that applies to passengers riding in vehicles that they know were taken without consent of the owner.  This charge does not apply to individuals who helped carjack the vehicle, as that would result in party-to-a-crime carjacking charges.  It only applies to passengers after the fact.
  • Operating a vehicle without owner’s consent remains a crime.

2023 Wisconsin Act 1 makes it easier for police to impound and hold onto vehicle involved in reckless driving incidents

2023 Wisconsin Act 1 allows police to impound a vehicle stopped in violation of reckless driving laws when:

  • The driver is the owner of the vehicle;
  • The driver has a prior reckless driving citation; and
  • The driver has a prior reckless driving citation and hasn’t fully paid the fine.
  • The owner then has 90 days to pay any fines and storage fees for the vehicle.  If those fees are not paid within 90 days, the vehicle can be destroyed or sold by the city.

Local leaders are hopeful that taking the vehicles out of the hands of reckless drivers helps slow the problem.  This solution doesn’t rely on overcriminalizing charges and labeling young offenders with life-long criminal records, but tries to address the problem in a more practical manner: if you don’t have a car, you can’t recklessly drive a car.

But, is this enough?

The law focuses on taking vehicles out of the hands of problematic drivers throughout the community.  But how often are those drivers the actual owners of the vehicles?  Impoundment of vehicles is not possible if the driver is not the owner of the vehicle.  So, as an example, if the reckless driver is operating a stolen or borrowed vehicle, the vehicle won’t be impounded.  Avoiding consequences is as simple as keeping the vehicle titled in the name of someone else.  The government has not publicized data indicating how frequently the driver of a vehicle involved in an incident is also the owner of the vehicle.  The effectiveness on new laws relies heavily on this data.

But if the drivers actually own most of the vehicles, this law has the potential to help slow the problem.  According to the Milwaukee Police Department, 83% of reckless driving fines go unpaid.  If any of those drivers are stopped in the future for reckless driving (at least 90 days after the previous fine), they’re quickly left without a vehicle (or at least this one).

A vehicle involved in a car accident.
Lawmakers have started fighting back against the reckless driving epidemic present in many Wisconsin communities. New laws aim to impound vehicles and increase various civil and criminal penalties across the board.

Contact Van Severen Law Office, S.C. for help defending against criminal charges you’re facing:

Recent media coverage of reckless driving situations, along with the new laws, could result in an otherwise-normal criminal case being propelled into the limelight.  If you’re facing any kind of criminal charge, it’s important to speak with a criminal defense lawyer before talking to reporters or members of the media.  This also applies to family members.  It’s important to remember that these interviews could end up in the news, and therefore in the hands of both the general public and prosecutors.  If you’re set on speaking publicly, let us help control the release of information.  Don’t admit to things publicly and make your case easier to prove for the government.

We recognize that everyone makes mistakes, even mistakes involving recklessly driving vehicles.  While reckless driving is indeed a problem in Milwaukee, doubling penalties and overcriminalization are not necessarily the solution.  We recognize that.

Finally, our firm offers free consultations to potential clients.  Call us at (414) 270-0202, let’s start talking, and let’s figure out if our firm can help.

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