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  • November 17, 2020

    Appeals Court: Early Release Not an Option for OWI Defendant, 7th Offense

    Joe Forward

    Drunk Driving

    Nov. 17, 2020 – A state appeals court has ruled that a man convicted for a seventh offense operating while intoxicated (OWI) charge is not entitled to early release from prison even though he successfully completed a substance abuse program.

    The decision in State v. Gramza, 2020AP100-CR (Nov. 10, 2020) resolves an apparent conflict between a statute requiring a mandatory prison term for OWI-7th offenders and a statute that allows early release upon successful completion of a treatment program.

    Seventh-time OWI offenders are subject to a minimum of three years in prison, plus three years of extended supervision, under Wis. Stat. section 346.65(2)(am)6. That is the sentence Jack Gramza received after pleading guilty to a 7th offense OWI.

    The court also ordered Gramza’s eligibility for a Substance Abuse Program (SAP) while in prison. Gramza successfully completed the program within six months.

    The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) then informed the sentencing court of his completion, and requested a sentence modification to convert his remaining prison time to extended supervision, in accordance with Wis. Stat. section 302.05.

    That statute requires a court to reduce the prison portion of an inmate’s sentence, converting the remainder to extended supervision, if the DOC determines that an inmate has successfully completed a substance abuse treatment program.

    As the appeals court noted: “The circuit court questioned its authority to authorize Gramza’s release after he had served only six months of a three year minimum term of initial confinement as mandated by the legislature. The court therefore ordered the DOC and the State to submit briefs addressing this issue.”

    DOC asserted that the circuit court had authority to release Gramza from prison early because the court must impose the mandatory sentence but the substance abuse treatment statute does not require that the sentence be fully served.

    The state said the trial court had discretion to determine if a defendant was eligible for the substance abuse program, but did not have discretion to release someone early.

    The circuit court ultimately ruled that the legislature intended a mandatory minimum sentence to be served. Thus, the court ruled that Gramza was required to serve the minimum three years in prison, rejecting his double jeopardy argument.

    Appeals Court Affirms

    The appeals court affirmed the circuit court after conducting a statutory interpretation analysis to resolve the apparent conflict between statutes.

    In doing so, the appeals court examined the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Williams, 2014 WI 64, 355 Wis. 2d 581. In that case, the supreme court reviewed whether a statute required the sentencing court to impose a bifurcated sentence, and looked to legislative history in reaching a decision.

    “To adopt the interpretation argued by Gramza would ignore the legislative history of the statute described in Williams; namely, the intent of the legislature to increase the penalties for multiple OWI convictions by mandating a minimum term of initial confinement that must be served,” wrote Judge William Brash III.

    “Such an interpretation would lead to the unreasonable result of allowing the mandatory minimum sentence for an OWI-7th conviction to be circumvented, directly contradicting the intent of the legislature.”

    The court rejected Gramza’s double jeopardy argument – that he had a legitimate expectation of being released early if he finished treatment.

    However, the court noted that completion of a substance abuse program could benefit someone who receives a prison sentence above the mandatory minimum.

    “[W]e note that a defendant convicted of an OWI-7th who receives a term of initial confinement that is longer than the mandatory minimum would be able to benefit from the SAP statute’s early release provision. In other words, there are conditions under which the requirements of both statutes could be applied which would allow for both statutes to fully serve their purposes,” Judge Brash wrote.

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    WisBar Court Review, published by the State Bar of Wisconsin, includes summaries and analysis of decisions from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, as well as other court developments. To contribute to this blog, contact Joe Forward.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2023 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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