What does it mean that a first offense OWI in Wisconsin is not a crime?

You may have heard that Wisconsin is the only state in which a first-time conviction for drunk driving is not a crime. That’s true—Wisconsin treats a first offense OWI as a forfeiture, meaning it does not result in jail time or a criminal record. That may sound like folks get off easy after an arrest for drunk driving in Wisconsin, but the truth is a little more complicated.

A first offense OWI without a criminal record doesn’t automatically mean no problems.

First of all, just because something doesn’t result in a “criminal record” doesn’t mean that there are no long-term ramifications. A conviction for a first offense OWI will still result in a public record, both with the court and with the DMV, that can be accessed by potential employers, licensing boards, insurance companies, and so on.

In addition, a first offense OWI still carries significant penalties, including a driver’s license revocation, hefty fines, mandatory classes or treatment, and, in many cases, a requirement that an ignition interlock device (IID) be installed in your vehicle.

Other states may not be as strict as they seem towards first offense OWIs.

While all 49 other states treat first-time drunk driving as a crime, that’s not the end of the story. Many states do not require jail time on first-offense drunk driving cases, so the penalties that a person may face in other states end up being much closer to what you see in Wisconsin.

More importantly, many other states provide a path for a person to avoid ending up with a criminal record. For example, most people with a first-offense DUI in Illinois can complete court supervision, which, if the person is successful, results in no criminal record. Wisconsin lacks any legal process for expunging or otherwise removing a first offense OWI conviction from a person’s record.

What’s more, Wisconsin has an unusual statute that prohibits prosecutors from dismissing an OWI case or reducing it to a lesser charge unless specific criteria are met and a judge approves it. This is unlike any other kind of charge in Wisconsin—prosecutors can drop a burglary or murder charge any time they want, but they can’t drop a first time OWI.

Even though a first offense OWI in Wisconsin isn’t classified as criminal, it is still a serious matter that may have life-long consequences. Consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible to begin preparing your defense.