Eric Mehring Posts Bond, Community Right To Be Mighty Disgruntled After Three Teenagers Killed By Drunk Driver

I believe in the rule of law. I believe in a process to address the ills of society through a prescribed set of actions to ensure society runs smoothly.

But I also believe in common sense.

I cannot think of a more gut-wrenching news story in Dane County over the past couple of decades that can match the horror and sadness than the deaths of three bright, engaging, and intelligent high school guys due to a fiery car crash caused by a drunk driver. Over the many years we have seen all sorts of news reports about shootings, the impact of severe weather, and good people succumbing to deadly diseases.

But nothing has ripped the public so deep than the absolutely needless deaths of Simon Bilessi, Evan Kratochwill, and John “Jack” Miller.

The deaths of these three people were the result of Eric Mehring reportedly driving his car approximately 30 mph over the 45 mph on a two-lane road at night. Oh, yeah, he was also stinking drunk.

Mehring, it was reported in the police account, had a breath alcohol content value of 0.24, which is three times the legal 0.08 blood alcohol content limit. It was also reported that a law enforcement officer on the scene stated Mehring had eyes that were “glossy and bloodshot.”

The court proceeding this week that set Mehring’s bond at an incredulously low $75,000 was met with dismay by the family members of the victims and folks all around this county.

It was obvious what would be the next step in this process.

Mehring was let out of jail after his family posted his bond. Again, I know this is the process that can be used by the defense.

But the gravity of the crime that was committed by this act of drunk driving should have been more than enough to have demanded a bond that would have prohibited Mehring from being free.

I understand in Wisconsin drunk driving is too often seen as a laugh line. Our state statutes are not tough enough as a first offense at driving under the influence is a mere misdemeanor. For too long we have coddled drunk drivers and not been tough on the bartenders who over-serve their patrons.

Why that last point is so ‘out of bounds’ for discussion is yet one more symptom of the larger problem of too much drinking in this state. Alcohol consumption and our view of drinking as acceptable behavior at every turn in life has resulted in a myriad of social problems. That is just a fact.

I have long argued on behalf of stricter laws concerning this broad topic of drunk driving. Such as, that bartenders need to be as mindful of what they turn out into the street to drive home as they are when filling yet another glass of alcohol. If that had been done concerning Meyring this awful nightmare for three teens and their families and friends possibly would not have occurred.

I have been consistent on this blog about needing tougher laws on drinking in this state. As an example, I advocated for the stern law now on the books in Wausau where bartenders need to be sober at their job.

I support outright a requirement that people serving alcohol have none of it in their system. That bill has been introduced in past legislative sessions, once by Democratic State Representative Josh Zepnick.  It does not take long to understand there were plenty of people opposed to that measure. The beer-soaked Tavern League made sure of that. But I suspect many average folks in the state understood the logic of the bill.

What we know is that Mehring was drinking. Someone poured his drinks and took his money. Someone surely watched him leave through the bar door. We can not pretend none of that matters.

The legal process will play out, and in the months ahead, Mehring will face a judge. The penalty phase of the trial will be tough for the family who found it so easy to set Mehring free this weekend.

In the meantime the rest of Dane County continues to have the families of Bilessi, Kratochwill, and Miller in our thoughts and prayers.

And so it goes.

Wisconsin Tavern League: Profits Over Public Health

The facts about the pandemic in Wisconsin are staggering. On Tuesday Wisconsin passed two records that no one wanted to cross during this pandemic. Our state had already passed a grim milestone of having 150,000 COVID cases. But then in one day, we had a record 3,279 new cases added to the count and a most horrible record number of deaths at 34. It is a truly sobering time in the state.

Which is why it stuns the sensibilities to learn this morning a Sawyer County judge blocked Governor Tony Evers’ latest order to curb the spread of coronavirus by limiting public gatherings and the number of customers bars and restaurants may serve at one time. 

While bars and restaurants can lament the sluggish cash flow to their businesses let it be made clear the reason for not only the spike in cases, but also the economic calamity, is due to the lack of a federal and comprehensive response from the Trump White House. One has to ask where the Wisconsin Tavern League was when so many were pressing for an encompassing plan to combat the virus.

The order put in place by Evers capped customers to 25% of the establishment’s capacity limit. That sent the Wisconsin Tavern League into a lather and to court to stop the order. The county judge did that today on a temporary basis while the state will make their case on Monday in a hearing as to why the order makes not only sense but was framed to meet the Supreme Court ruling from earlier this year.

We know how the virus is spread and also what happened in Wisconsin when the bars were allowed to recklessly reopen this spring. The data and contract tracing tells the story of how these establishments played a large role in the ability of the virus to spread.

It is truly concerning when the tavern league can undo public health orders so their members can make money by conducting themselves in ways that continue the spread of a deadly pandemic. I trust the courts will correct the Sawyer County judge next week.

Wisconsin Court Ruling: Partisan Politics vs. Health Of Citizenry

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruling was not unexpected.

On Wednesday the court rejected the extension of a stay-at-home order by Governor Evers.  The conservative-leaning court agreed with Republicans who had brought the case.  It was a very sad spectacle to see play out as the nation also witnessed how our highest court could not place judicial reasoning and medical data ahead of partisanship.  No, the ruling was not unexpected, given the make-up of the court.   But it was most dangerous and unseemly.

The conservatives on the court can cloak themselves in all the high use of legal parlance they desire.  But there is no rational explanation for the ruling other than crass politics. The lack of mature leadership from the court now allows for chaos to ensue.

There is little reason to believe the Republican-controlled legislature will have any more desire to sit down with a Democratic governor than they did weeks ago.  While Evers and his administration have been using data from the state to fashion how the economy will again re-open with the safety of citizens in mind, the GOP has yet to offer any plans about how the state moves forward.

There will now be a hodge-podge of behavior.  A county might allow for certain businesses to open while a neighboring one might very well have different rules in place.  The strategies for keeping the virus on a downward trajectory in the state will be severely tested with such a mess.  With too many people ready to abandon common-sense and medical advice the entire state is now at risk.

Those who read and follow the news reports know scientists are most worried about racing towards re-opening businesses too quickly, without a series of needed steps and procedures in place to ensure health safety.  Couple that with what experts predict will be a dreaded second wave of COVID-19 later this year, along with what the medical community fears regarding the timing of flu season and the plotting is all completed for the next Robin Cook blockbuster.

I have been truly surprised and most disheartened over the past months how a pandemic could become tribal and divide the nation based on political leanings.  The bickering and back-biting from the state legislature, at a time when they all needed to roll their sleeves up and ante-up for the state, was not something I would have predicted.  Most folks in the state are deeply concerned about the virus and want mature leadership.  What they have witnessed leaves them more nervous and unsure than ever.

The local bartender will pour drinks and malls will open their doors. But the court system who made the ruling did their jobs in the safest manner possible—through virtual communications.  That fact tells us not only about the severity of the virus but that partisanship has taken a firm hold of the highest court in our state.  Even when the health and well-being of residents are at stake partisan considerations triumph.

We all want to have an economy that is open and robust.  But it needs to be done with data-driven policy and medical advice at every turn.  What would be an absolutely unforgivable disaster is for our state to have stayed home, abided by the rules, closed down businesses, cratered the bank accounts of many workers only to now spike the virus in places far and wide across Wisconsin due to the most base of partisan reasoning.

That scenario is the one that many are fearing tonight based on today’s partisan court ruling.

Wisconsin Tavern League’s Opening Idea Not Fully Brewed

I was dismayed to learn that the Wisconsin Tavern League put a proposal forth to open their businesses across Wisconsin on May 1. All of us appreciate the financial hardships that businesses and employees are facing during this pandemic.  But it is also essential to appreciate that only data-driven recommendations and medical guidelines can be used to determine when businesses can reopen in our state.  Just because a special interest provides a great deal of campaign cash does not make them medical experts during a pandemic.

There is no doubt the tavern industry in our state has incredible economic clout.  The sales from restaurants and bars pour $10 billion into the state’s economy.  
No one is denying how many people this industry employs nor how much of an investment the business owners have put into their various establishments.  But at this point with a pandemic wreaking havoc there has to be a recognition that the financial  bottom line of the tavern industry is less important than the lives of the citizenry.  In fact, when compared to life and death their profit or loss does not matter at all,

It has been stated over and over that we must first see a 14-day downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 symptoms being reported in the state before we open businesses.  In addition state health officials are setting a goal of 85,000 COVID-19 tests per week, averaging roughly 12,000 tests per day.  In addition to expanded testing, health officials will be increasing contact tracing in an effort to track the spread of the coronavirus.  That is a most critical aspect of the plan.

This testing regiment must be operating at the time we reopen as it is an essential step to take so to allow for faith to be created in workers about the safety of heading back to the workplace, and for customers who at some point will start to head to restaurants and movie theaters.  Without broad-based testing and the data which will result, there is no way for the economy to be lifted up in a manner that is very much needed.

We must not ask employees to go back to work, or encourage customers to again consider shopping in stores, watching a movie, or heading to a hair salon until there is data to support such action.

The most salient argument for opening businesses after the medical data supports such a move is to ensure that there is not an increase in virus cases to the point that we need to again shut down the state economy.  If that were to happen it would send a most severe body-blow to the business community, and it would frighten customers to the point that when the state would reopen (yet again) there would be little faith that employers could keep workers and customers safe.

There’s is one chance to open up businesses safely and do so in such a way as to gain the trust of the citizens. Prematurely popping the top for the Tavern League before state  leaders and professionals deem it appropriate would lead to more virus cases, deaths, and even more business closures.

This idea from the Tavern League is not yet fully brewed.

Pacing Of Wisconsin Legislature Is Concerning

Wisconsin citizens can be excused if they have felt a sense of whiplash the past few days while reading and pondering the work of their state legislature.  While each person can have a varying sense of what needs to be prioritized by our elected officials there can be no disagreement over the fact legislators, by the pacing of their actions, send strong messages about what interests they are protecting and for whom they are really working.

Drunk driving in the Badger State makes for far too many horrific headlines.   Every session there are pleas from the public for tougher and more meaningful laws.  While over time stricter laws have passed there is one measure that seems unable to muster its way to a touchdown.  Wisconsin remains the only state that does not penalize a first-time drunken-driving offense as a criminal charge.

The Wisconsin State Journal editorialized on the need for smarter and tougher drunk driving laws this weekend. 

Unfortunately, top Republican leaders in both houses — Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — are resisting another sensible bill, AB 18, that would make a first offense for OWI a misdemeanor crime. The proposal, championed by Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, would bring Wisconsin in line with the rest of the nation, and give hundreds of thousands of drivers more reason not to risk getting behind the wheel after drinking lots of alcohol.

The Wisconsin Tavern League continually makes sure that Wisconsin is the only state where a first-time drunken driving  offense is not a real crime.  Just slap the wrist of the first-time offender who drinks and drives, and all is supposed to be fine.

It is not all fine.  The headlines over the many years prove what is happening on our roadways.  As noted in the editorial more than 20,000 people are convicted for drunken driving each year in Wisconsin. Nearly 3,000 people are injured in alcohol-related crashes, and close to 200 people lose their lives.

Meanwhile those who drink water and wonder what chemicals and toxins come out of their tap continues to grow. 

Wisconsin wastewater plants were built to keep pollutants out of the environment, but state regulators have come to realize the facilities may be spreading hazardous industrial chemicals (PFAS) in ways that increase health risks.

Lobbyists for manufacturing concerns including the paper industry have urged lawmakers to go slowly and carefully examine PFAS regulations before acting.

A water quality task force announced by Vos in January has held public hearings and plans to schedule one on PFAS, said chairman Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville. Novak said he hopes the panel will roll out proposed legislation on at least some water pollution problems this fall or winter. He said he couldn’t predict how PFAS would be addressed because it hasn’t been discussed.

The fact we still have far too lenient rules regarding how political campaigns receive money means that the well-funded business community can work legislators far more adroitly than the average person filling a glass of water at the sink.

We are very aware that when the statehouse feels a need to put on thruster rockets and make speed with legislative initiatives they can do so–as last December proved.   The Republican majority called an extraordinary session.  It was most concerning as it was timed after an election which changed leadership in the governor’s office, and prior to the time the victor could sign or veto bills from that session.  The whole effort was designed to undermine what the citizens had stated with their ballots only weeks prior.

At that time elected officials proved that speed mattered.  But when drinking water concerns are raised, or the decades-long fight to curtail first-time drunk drivers is pressed for action we can plainly see citizens just wind up waiting.

What ties all these issues together is a severe lack of enough independent-minded legislators in Madison to get the people’s work done.  Too few who asked for the responsibility of leadership care to look at the facts and propose or support bills dealing with what voters are most concerned about.  Instead, some legislators allow themselves to be brow-beaten and threatened with political opposition at election time, or told they will be denied campaign cash.  Like wilting flowers in the afternoon sun timid elected officials seek the safe route, but not the high road when it comes to working on the pressing needs of our state.  

Some will say that is ‘just politics’.  But that flies in the face of the facts.  Every other state has a hard line when it comes to first time OWI’s.  Nineteen states have set PFAS limits or guidelines for PFAS in water.   Those results show that more partisanship than policy making takes place under the dome in Madison.  And the average citizen loses out as a result.

Might Wisconsin Be Well-Served With Place-Of-Last-Drink Data To Combat Drunk Driving?

The news media have reported for days on the new drunk driving penalties which took effect January 1st.  Even so, Wisconsin still has the weakest laws on the books for first offenders.  It seems a day never goes by without another report of drunk driving serving as a reminder of the immense problem we face.  As such, throughout the state serious-minded people are pondering how to better address this social illness.

The Brown County Board of Supervisors shortly before Christmas agreed to ask the state legislature to allow judges to order the seizure of vehicles driven by drunk drivers.   While the idea can be debated from both sides people know what we have done thus far to curb the problem is simply not working.  More creative ideas need to be considered, and possibly passed into law to stop drunk driving.

I have long argued that if bar owners and their servers were half as interested in what they poured into the streets at the end of the night as they were over what was poured into the glass of a patron we all would be better off.

With that in mind it seems another useful tool in our efforts to limit drunk drivers would be to know which bars are named as the last place-of-drink prior to being pulled over by police for an OWI.   It would be useful to know upon conviction which bars over-served a customer.  It goes without saying that a bar which is named a certain number of times by those convicted should be sanctioned in some way.

While some drunk drivers might not tell the truth for a variety of reasons about their last place of drinking it should be noted a bar that is named over and over does not get to the top of a list without cause.  And from there it seems local law enforcement could use patrol efforts to target the roads around the bar and work to prevent drunk driving.

While I can see the Wisconsin Tavern League fuming over this idea the fact remains a more concerted effort needs to be made so owners of drinking establishments are made more responsible for what is happening on our roads.  Perhaps some heightened awareness of bars who continue to serve intoxicated patrons might make a dent in drunk driving.  We can not do any worse for trying.

Wisconsin Needs Attorney General With Tough Drunk Driving Position

How can the entire rest of the nation be ‘wrong’ when it comes to making a first drunken driving offense a misdemeanor?  Because if we are ‘right’ with not having such a law on the books then every other state must be marching to a tune that is not correct over such a policy.

Over and over it has been reported not only in this state, but also in tones of disbelief around the nation that Wisconsin slaps only a citation on the first act of getting caught while operating a vehicle while drunk. One does not need to have a degree from a fancy college, or be immersed in data and statistics to know full well that leniency when it comes to drunk driving is simply a recipe for disaster.

One also does not need to be a political reporter to know that the Wisconsin Tavern League is a most powerful and well-financed machine that makes sure sensible laws are never allowed to pass the legislature when it comes to drunk driving.

There are three Democrats seeking the nomination for attorney general next week.  But one of them is out of step with those of us who know some steel in the spine is required when an attorney general deals with the issue of drunk driving.

State Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne have correctly stated a first drunken driving offense should be a misdemeanor.   Meanwhile the third candidate in the primary, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, likes the way citations are now handed out to those who drunkenly weave about on our roads.  Instead of hitting hard on those who are first pulled over by police when driving while drunk Happ wants repeat drunken drivers to face hasher penalties.

It should be noted that Happ has been given $1,500 from the tavern industry’s political action committee. Richards and Ozanne have not received any such funding from this political operation.

The main problem I have with Happ’s position is that she seems to think that tarring someone with a misdemeanor is such an awful outcome.  They might be termed a ‘criminal’.

I come from the school of thinking where drinking and driving should be so culturally unacceptable that it would be far worse to be labeled as someone who injures or kills another as a result of being drunk.  And since there is a continual public campaign to alert everyone not to drive while drinking it should then come as no surprise if one is then caught by police for doing that very thing.

Happ seems unable to say or do the correct thing when it comes to the issue of handling first-time drunk drivers.  The problem is that almost every newspaper carries a story on the latest drunk driver who has been arrested on our roads.  I think that if we were more harsh and demanding accountability with the first DUI we would have fewer repeat offenders.

I am trusting Wisconsin Democrats send the proper message when we cast a ballot next Tuesday by nominating a tough fighter for sober drivers who only want to make it to our destination alive.

Racine County DA Rich Chiapete Has Drunken Hit-And-Run, Worth Only A Municipal Citation

This story is not news in the earth-shaking sense of the word.  After all, drunk driving in Wisconsin comes in spadesful, and the spineless consequences for first-time offenders is now the stuff of laughs and mockery to the bar crowd.

But for the rest of us who read the following story there is shame to be felt knowing we live in a state with so little regard for making sure our roads are safe, and our laws in line with the rest of the country.

Racine County District Attorney Rich Chiapete was cited for drunken driving Friday night and for leaving the scene of an accident after striking a traffic light.

Lets state the facts again.

Chiapete was intoxicated, struck a pole, left his vehicle, and fled to his house.

For this behavior in Wisconsin Chiapete received municipal citations for OWI and hit-and-run.   For what Chiapete described as having ‘a few drinks’ at a birthday party the law says no real problem if you are a first offender that drinks and drives, smashes into something and flees the scene.

Thankfully there was a not a kid on a bike at that intersection waiting for the traffic light to change, or some parent wheeling a child in a stroller.  For all the brave talk from Chiapete  about needing to find ways to have the county find faith in him again is the harsh reality of what could have happened because of his stupidity.

At some point, and God only knows when that will be, this state is going to have to let loose of the notion the Tavern League should dictate laws regarding drunk driving.   At some point the state legislature will have to join the 21st-century when drafting drunk driving laws.

There is no way that a first offense of drunk driving in Wisconsin should he a mere citation.  This is just plain embarrassing.