The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently decided a case that could have important consequences for anyone facing OWI charges. In City of Eau Claire v. Melissa M. Booth Britton, the Court abolished subject matter jurisdiction challenges to improperly-charged first offense OWIs. What does that mean in plain English you ask? Below is brief summary of the case along with an explanation of how this could affect you in a future OWI case.

In 1990, Ms. Booth Britton was convicted of an OWI 1st in Minnesota. In 1992, she was again arrested and charged with OWI. However, the prosecutor was unaware of Ms. Booth Britton’s prior conviction from Minnesota so the case was mistakenly charged, and she was convicted, of another first offense (which was not a crime and did not expose her to a jail sentence).

Fast forward to 2014. Ms. Booth Britton found herself again facing an OWI charge. This time, she moved to reopen the 1992 civil forfeiture judgment, arguing that it was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. These types of motions are commonly referred to as a “collateral attack.” Put simply, Ms. Booth Britton wanted to capitalize on the error in 1992. Ms. Booth Britton’s motion initially succeeded and she realized a big benefit. The punishment for her 2014 case was greatly reduced given the successful collateral attack of her 1992 conviction. As you can imagine, the prosecutor was not happy with this result and appealed. The case ultimately found its way up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Court decided the case on technical legal grounds involving concepts of jurisdiction and competency. Put simply, subject matter jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear certain types of cases. Competency, on the other hand, is not jurisdictional; it is the power of the court to exercise subject matter jurisdiction in a particular case.

This case may have an impact on criminal defendants who have prior OWI convictions. Prior to this case, criminal defense attorneys could collaterally attack those prior convictions and often reap tremendous benefits for their clients. However, this case dramatically lessens that possibility. The heart of the Court’s ruling is that these type of challenges must be raised at the time of the OWI case is prosecuted and cannot be raised after the fact like in Ms. Booth Britton’s case.

Another takeaway from this case is the importance of having a proper legal defense. Our criminal defense attorneys have the knowledge and experience to deal with the ever changing OWI legal landscape and will do everything possible to ensure your best defense. If you would like to schedule a free consultation to talk more in depth with one of our criminal defense attorneys please call our office or submit a case evaluation via our website.