By Alexandria Staubach
Despite strong public comment against the measure, the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday approved a bill criminalizing the operation of a motor vehicle without a valid license.
The bill passed 20-13 with solely Republican support. All Democrats voted against the bill, joined by two Republicans. The chart below shows the votes.
As previously reported by WJI, under current law, most operating-while-suspended violations are forfeiture violations resolved in municipal court. SB 404 enhances the penalties for operating-while-suspended, turning even first offenses into misdemeanors.
The cost of the legislation was highlighted by community members at a hearing in October before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. Legal Action of Wisconsin estimated that the bill could result in approximately 100,000 more criminal charges annually. The Wisconsin State Public Defender (SPD) estimated that under just two specific provisions of the bill 6,901 new cases would be generated from new charges in the first year, with 4,600 of those cases qualifying for SPD services. Those cases would equal the workload of nine additional attorneys.
The bill as passed appropriates no funding for the added burdens on the SPD or circuit courts.
WJI opposes the bill. In written testimony to the Senate committee, WJI stressed that in 2022 a failure to pay prior forfeitures caused 47% of license suspensions and that most of those with outstanding forfeiture debt lack the means to pay.
At the committee hearing, James Gramling, a former Milwaukee Municipal Court judge and member of the 1995 Governor’s Task Force on Suspended and Revoked Drivers said, “In my view you would be creating debtors’ prisons.”
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said at the hearing, “The legislature is making it very difficult to be responsible so legislators can get good headlines about being in touch on crime when what we are criminalizing here is poverty and not dangerous conduct.”
The bill does not just endanger those with suspended licenses. It will also further jeopardize undocumented workers who remain ineligible for licenses under Wisconsin law. For example, in farming communities like Abbotsford, Wisconsin, 134 of 157 tickets examined for driving without a valid license were issued to persons with common Hispanic surnames, a summer ProPublica investigation found.
The bill proceeds to the Assembly for its consideration. A companion bill, AB 421, was introduced in the Assembly in September and referred to its Committee on Transportation.
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