MADISON, Wis. — Attorney general hopeful Brad Schimel said Tuesday he's skeptical of making first-offense drunken driving a crime, saying the move could overwhelm the state's courts and lead to more drunken driving.
Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense is considered a civil violation akin to a speeding ticket. Schimel, Waukesha County's Republican district attorney, said he's not sure if the other 49 states have seen measurable improvements in public safety.
He said criminalizing first offenses would jam county courts with cases, forcing counties to hire more judges and prosecutors. Schimel also believes first-offense forfeitures that currently go to municipalities would go to the state, leaving local leaders in the hole.
Without the money, they could lay off police officers, Schimel said, and fewer police means more drunken driving would go undetected.
"It's important to look at exactly what it means to make it criminal," Schimel said.
Schimel entered the attorney general's race in October after incumbent Republican J.B. Van Hollen abruptly announced he wouldn't seek re-election. Democrats Ismael Ozanne, the Dane County district attorney, and state Rep. Jon Richards from Milwaukee are running as well.
Ozanne said in an email to The Associated Press that first offense needs to be criminalized and the Legislature should give prosecutors enough money to handle the new cases.
"I don't know how, in good conscience, we cannot criminalize something as dangerous as first-time drunk driving," Ozanne said.
Richards didn't immediately return a message late Tuesday afternoon. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, however, he recently voted for bills that would require first offenders to appear in court and criminalize second offenses.
Schimel also said he believes John Doe investigations should have a time limit because people are losing confidence in them.
John Doe investigations are secret probes similar to the federal grand jury process. Milwaukee prosecutors have launched two such probes regarding Republican Gov. Scott Walker. One focused on Walker's staff while he was Milwaukee County executive and wrapped up without any charges. Prosecutors have launched a second investigation that reportedly involves Walker's campaign and conservative groups.
Schimel added he would support a state lawsuit challenging provisions in the federal health care reform law that require employers who provide health insurance to their workers to cover birth control. The federal government shouldn't be able to impose requirements on individuals that are "abhorrent to their conscience," he said.