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.

No criminal record doesn’t 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 more lenient than they seem.

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.