Understanding the Basics of an OWI/DUI in Wisconsin

Alcohol and drugs (such as marijuana and cocaine) -- and even prescription drugs -- all fall under Wisconsin’s drunk driving laws.

A person who operates a motor vehicle with illegal amounts of alcohol in their blood, detectable amounts of restricted controlled substances, or impairing amounts of prescription drugs in their bodies, can be picked up by police in Wisconsin.

Therefore, it is important for Wisconsin drivers to understand the basics of drunk driving laws in Wisconsin.

What is an OWI or DUI?

OWI and DUI refer to the same thing; drunk driving.

In Wisconsin, a drunk driving charge is referred to as “OWI” (Operating While Intoxicated). In other parts of the country, such as Illinois, a drunk driving charge is commonly referred to as “DUI” (Driving Under the Influence).

In addition to alcohol, a person can be charged with operating a motor vehicle with drugs in their body. There are two ways this can happen:
(1) operating with a detectable amount of a restricted controlled substance (commonly referred to as a “RCS” type OWI); or
(2) operating under the influence of a drug, such as prescription medication.

In cases involving RCS, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle with any detectable amount of a restricted controlled substance, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or THC (marijuana). It does not matter whether the person is impaired by the drug. Rather, to be convicted of the offense, it only matters if the person has a trace amount of the drug in their body.

In situations involving driving and prescription medications, although it is not illegal to drive with the prescribed drug in the person’s body, it is illegal to drive if the drug is impairing the person’s ability to safely operate the motor vehicle. Certain prescriptions, such as anti-anxiety medicines or muscle relaxants, should have a warning on the prescription bottle about driving while taking the medicine.

What should a driver know about Wisconsin laws if they are pulled over?

If pulled over by an officer of the law, it’s important to remain calm and polite, even if the driver feels their rights are being violated.

A driver should know that they do have legal rights when it comes to an OWI investigation.

While a driver must provide their identification and proof of insurance to a police officer, the driver is NOT required to participate in field sobriety testing, such as a “Walk and Turn Test” or “One Leg Stand Test.” In fact, the driver does not have to submit to a roadside breathalyzer test either.

While that might sound great for the driver, it’s important to note that if a driver declines to participate in these tests, they can still be arrested for OWI.

The police have a duty to keep drunk drivers off the road, so if the officer believes that there are other signs of alcohol or drug use -- such as slurred speech, the odor of alcohol on breath, bloodshot and/or glassy eyes, or poor driving such as swerving -- the officer could still arrest the driver.

After a person has been arrested for drunk driving, what should they do?

Following an arrest, it is important, again, for the driver to remain calm. While it can feel traumatic to be arrested, becoming upset will not help the situation.

If the police have reasonable grounds to believe a driver was operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated or with illegal drugs in their body, the police will ask for a breath or blood sample. The police get to choose which test to offer.

If the driver declines to submit to a breath or blood test, the police will mark their response as a “refusal”. In most situations, the police will then seek to obtain a search warrant from a judge that orders the driver to submit to a blood test.

If police do obtain a search warrant for blood testing, the driver must comply with the warrant. If the driver resists the warrant, police will draw the blood forcefully, and the driver could be charged with additional crimes.

It is important to consider that, if a driver refuses a chemical lawfully requested blood or breath test, the penalty is a license revocation and required installation of an ignition interlock device. If the driver agrees to the testing, and the test shows they have a prohibited alcohol concentration and/or illegal drugs in their system, the penalty is a license suspension.

Finally, after an arrest, it is imperative to call a lawyer as soon as possible. In all OWI or RCS cases, time is often of the essence. Consulting with a lawyer right away can help ensure that no steps in the driver’s defense are missed.

How can a lawyer help if a person is charged with an OWI in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin’s OWI law is complicated. A criminal defense lawyer will assist a driver in understanding their options, exploring defenses, and navigating the court system.

A DUI/OWI lawyer can also explain the possible consequences to their driving privileges, steps that can be done to ease the consequences such as potential jail, and, most importantly, a lawyer can analyze the evidence to determine a possible defense to the allegations.

Each case is unique, and an attorney can help the driver navigate their legal situation. Some considerations include:
Is this a first offense or are there multiple offenses?
Was anyone injured or killed as a result of the OWI?
Is there damage to property?
Is the driver a minor?
Were there minors in the car?
Is the driver a commercial driver, and the arrest will impact their livelihood?
Have rights of the driver been violated in the process?

Lastly, there is a time limit to challenge suspension or revocation of a driver’s license following an OWI. Therefore, it is extremely important to consult with a DUI/OWI lawyer right away and within days of being charged.

Drunk driving in Wisconsin, in conclusion

First, to avoid a drunk driving charge, simply do not drive a vehicle if any alcohol is in the body or controlled substances have been used.

However, if charged with an OWI, the driver has the right to an attorney and does not need to submit to questioning after being charged.

Murphy Desmond has highly experienced OWI/DUI attorneys in Madison, Dodgeville, and Janesville, Wisconsin. Our attorneys have been recognized by Wisconsin Super Lawyers® and Best Lawyers® in America, and they are highly rated on various online legal directories.

Contact our offices by calling 608.257.7181 or emailing email@murphydesmond.com as soon as possible if charged with drunk driving in Wisconsin.

Published March 17, 2023