Being from the ’80s, I am a fan, indeed a student, of irony.
So I am amused at the juxtaposition of two events of this past week. The first, which actually started one week earlier, was the self-revelation that state Rep. Christine Sinicki (D–Milwaukee) has been driving on a suspended driver’s license for a considerable amount of time while on state business.
Working backwards: Media Trackers reported this after finding out that Sinicki collected more than $3,000 in per diem payments that state legislators who live outside Dane County are eligible to receive. Sinicki’s legal issues came to light because …
During Governor Scott Walker’s (R) State of the State address this year, Sinicki garnered media attention for announcing on her Facebook page that the speech was “full of sh#@” and she wished she could walk out. Days after that controversy, the loudmouthed legislator used an expletive to describe what she though U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s (R) response would be to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Sinicki, like all state legislators, makes $49,943 per year in addition to said per diem payments and other handsome benefits. Don’t you feel happy about that use of your taxpayer dollars?
To be fair, Sinicki is not the only legislator to have driver’s license issues. Newspapers reported in the 1980s the legal maneuvers the Assembly minority leader had to drive through to keep his driver’s license as a result of his lead foot. At one point, said legislator was down to one or two points on his license, the newspaper breathlessly reported. Of course, once that legislator was elected governor, Tommy Thompson didn’t have any speeding-ticket problems, at least not in a car. U.S. Rep. Bob Kasten (R–Wisconsin) got picked up for drunk driving in the 1980s as well, prompting a UW–Madison student government party to call itself the Bob Kasten School of Driving.
The per-diem payments reportedly require that the legislator attest that he or she was driving from his or her district to Madison. The suspended license made it appear as though Sinicki either submitted fraudulent per diem payments, or was violating state law by driving on a suspended license. The latter was the case and, contrary to what Sinicki wants you to believe, not for the first time.
The point in all of these cases is that driving records are public records. When someone whose salary is paid by our tax dollars gets into legal trouble that is public record, and hostile media reports that, no sympathy is deserved. Sinicki’s previous operating-after-suspension citation occurred in 2012, before she was reelected to her Assembly seat. Apparently her constituents are OK with being represented by someone who seems to not believe that the laws of Wisconsin apply to her.
What’s so ironic about this, you ask? On the same week Sinicki was trying to explain her way out of her self-generated controversy, Sinicki’s party leader in the Assembly, Rep. Peter Barca (D–Kenosha), announced:
In order to decrease the number of distracted-driving casualties and injuries on Wisconsin roads and highways, Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D–Kenosha) and Sen. John Lehman (D–Racine) today announced a new bill to require a hands-free device when using a cell phone while driving. Earlier this month, Illinois became the 12th state to prohibit hand-held cell phone use while driving.
During the 2009-11 legislative session, Rep. Barca authored legislation that made Wisconsin the 25th state to ban texting while driving. Now 41 states prohibit that practice.
“It is important for Wisconsin to take the strong step toward ending this unsafe behavior on our roads,” Rep. Barca said. “This is a common-sense public safety proposal that would help keep Wisconsin’s drivers and pedestrians safe. We must use technology, such as hands-free options, whenever possible to enhance safety.”
This proposal provides exemptions for emergency vehicle operators, the use of GPS systems or two-way radios, touching the phone to receive or place a call, and reporting an emergency situation. The effective date is delayed one year to allow drivers time to consider purchasing hands-free capable devices.
One wonders what Barca’s and Lehman’s position is about the “unsafe behavior on our roads” of driving without a valid license, but that’s not the irony.
Another Democrat, Rep. Jon Richards (D–Milwaukee), is running for attorney general espousing tougher penalties for drunk drivers. That too is ironic not just because attorneys general are supposed to enforce the law, not try to create the law, but for the additional reason that in the same week, Richards’ Democratic opponent, Dane County District Attorney General Ismael Ozanne, and their Republican opponent, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimmel, both announced they had been picked up for drunk driving in the 1980s. (Ozanne and Schimmel were ticketed well before they entered public office, in an era in which drunk driving was less seen as a menace as today.)
The additional irony is that one of Richards’, Barca’s and Lehman’s fellow travelers, Rep. Melissa Sargent (D–Madison), is espousing something that will increase the number of impaired drivers on the roads. Sargent has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana use. It is mere logic that if you legalize use of a previously prohibited substance, that substance will get more use, more users and more abusers, including by drivers immediately before driving. It should not be controversial to point out that alcohol use increased when Prohibition ended. (Similarly, it should be pointed out, the offense of Operating a Motor Vehicle while Intoxicated does not distinguish between intoxicating substances. )
Barca’s and Lehman’s cellphone ban is a stupid idea for the same reason that Barca’s self-touted texting ban is bad law. Cellphone use, including texting, is an example of inattentive driving, already proscribed by state law up to felony status (homicide or causing injury by negligent use of a motor vehicle). It is ignorant for Barca and Lehman to assert that cellphone use is more distracting than the previously existing distractions of passengers (particularly arguing adults or misbehaving children) and other vehicles. No ginned-up safety study disproves that reality.
Richards’ desire to stiffen drunk driving penalties brings up Sinicki’s inability to drive without a valid license. The fact, which can be found at your local county courthouse’s clerk of circuit court office, is that there are probably thousands of Wisconsinites who drive every day without having a valid driver’s license, usually because theirs got suspended, like Sinicki, or revoked because of, for instance, drunk driving convictions. Every week newspapers that print their counties’ circuit court convictions include multiple listings for the citations of Operating After Suspension, or Operating After Revocation, or Operating After Revocation/Suspension of Registration.
Why do thousands of Wisconsin drivers get away with not having a valid license? Simple: The police don’t catch them. Why don’t the police catch them? Simple: Because the police cannot merely pull over anyone the police wants to; probable cause is required by law before a traffic stop is made. Unless they’re involved in a crash, most drunk drivers are caught because they drive impaired — driving too fast or too slow, not being able to stay in their lane, driving at night without headlights, or driving without working lights — in view of a police officer. In the case of a driver without a license, a police officer in a small city or village may know that a certain driver doesn’t have a license because the officer stopped the driver previously for not having a license.
Cellphone and texting bans, and apparently the operating after revocation/suspension laws, don’t stop people from, respectively, using cellphones and texting on them, and driving cars while not legally able to do so. That’s not necessarily a reason to pass a law — otherwise murder should be legal since people still kill others though murder is illegal — but it is a reason for legislators to think harder than they’re apparently used to before passing another unenforceable law.
Richards and others who espouse tougher drunk driving penalties also need to explain how the estimated costs associated with stiffer drunk driving penalties — as much as $204 million every year by one estimate — will be paid, and in the state with the fifth highest state and local taxes, the phrase “raise taxes” is the wrong answer. Sinicki’s suspended license reportedly was due to her not paying fines, which suggests that increasing fines might end up increasing license suspensions from unpaid fines.
Then there’s the issue of whether we really want to be putting more people in prison and jail when some argue there are already too many people in prison and jail for such crimes as, well, use of certain drugs. On the other hand, given the number of repeat drunk drivers, one wonders how drunk driving can be effectively stopped other than by physically separating a driver not just from his car, but from the ability to drive any vehicle.