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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Light Snow
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DMV prepares to hit road running
New rules for driver's licenses are just around the corner
Guenther at the DMV: 'We try not to panic.'
Guenther at the DMV: 'We try not to panic.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

For a man perched on a precipice overlooking an abyss that marks the end of life as we know it, Gary Guenther is remarkably calm.

'We try not to panic,' says Guenther, director of the Bureau of Field Services for the state Division of Motor Vehicles. 'That doesn't do anybody any good.'

Guenther shares concerns voiced by Gov. Jim Doyle and others that a new federal law will add to DMV wait times and hike state costs. But he remains optimistic these rules will be amended to make them less onerous.

The Real ID Act of 2005, the brainchild of Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), will require that state motor vehicle authorities verify the citizenship status of all driver's license and ID card applicants, and create an electronic archive of supporting documents.

Under draft rules released early this month, states may apply to get another 19 months from the original date, or until Dec. 31, 2009, to start the new regime. But the date of expected full compliance remains unchanged, at May 10, 2013.

'It was rather disappointing,' says Guenther, noting that Wisconsin would have less than four years to issue new licenses and IDs to its four million 'product holders.' The state now has an eight-year driver's license renewal cycle, and annually processes about a half-million renewals.

Doyle's 2007-09 budget funds 28 new DMV positions to meet the demands of Real ID. To afford this, he's tacking on a $10 'federal security verification mandate fee' to each new driver's license or ID.

Critics charge Real ID will 'create a de facto national identification card' and 'turn DMV workers into federal immigration officials.' Several states have threatened not to comply, at the risk of having their residents barred from planes and federal facilities.

Guenther hopes the negative reaction will force further changes. In the meantime, his division is preparing to implement Wisconsin Act 126, passed by the Legislature last year. 'What we're doing,' he says, 'is just a very small piece of Real ID.'

Beginning April 1, all persons seeking a first-time license or ID must prove they have legal immigration status. For natural-born citizens, a birth certificate, already required for proof of age, should suffice.

Those renewing or replacing licenses won't need a birth certificate, but must affirm in writing that they are in the country legally and provide a Social Security number that can be matched and verified.

Non-citizens, including temporary non-immigrant visitors and permanent or conditional residents, will need other documentation, like passports or green cards.

Guenther thinks these rules will mean slightly longer transaction times. On the other hand, they'll 'likely diminish the number of people' seeking licenses and IDs, so 'it's probably going to be a wash.' An eternal optimist.

Crash ' and consequences

Sean Burke is one angry man. The Dane County District Attorney's Office, he shouts, has been 'lying to us for months.' He says the office has failed to appropriately charge Peter A. Christenson, a Minnesota truck driver who injured Burke's mother, Marilyn Martin, in a hit-and-run crash.

'Why wouldn't you use prosecutorial discretion to charge it as a felony?' yells Burke, who lives out-of-state but is now staying with his mother in Madison as she recovers. Among other things, a felony charge would allow Christenson to be extradited, but a misdemeanor charge does not. Christenson has missed a court appearance, spurring a bench warrant for his arrest.

Just past midnight on Aug. 10, 2006, Christenson smashed his semi into the rear end of Martin's car. He did not stop. Christenson initially denied to police that he was involved in any crash, then admitted he may have hit something but had 'no idea' what. Just hours earlier, he'd been ticketed for his role in an accident in Illinois.

The hit-and-run occurred on the outskirts of Dane County; when police caught up to Christenson, he was in Columbia County. Drugs were found, for which he faces separate felony charges for possession of methamphetamine, narcotics and drug paraphernalia.

Here's where it gets confusing: The Dane County District Attorney's Office argues that the charge against Christenson is a felony, even though the criminal complaint calls it a misdemeanor and the penalties ' up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine ' are misdemeanor level. (A felony is any offense for which a person might get a year or more behind bars.) The office, like Burke, points to statutory language that seems to say all hit-and-runs involving injury are felonies. But DA Brian Blanchard says judges have tended to reject this interpretation.

There is a statutory charge that is clearly a felony for hit-and-runs that cause great bodily harm. Blanchard says the case is still under review: 'We have to look at the medical records and determine what we can prove.'

Attorney Michael Luebke, who represents Martin in a civil suit, says she suffered a broken leg and still uses a walking boot. The accident also exacerbated an eye problem, requiring laser surgery. He thinks her injuries 'seem to clearly fit' the statutory definition of great bodily harm, which includes protracted impairment of any bodily part.

John Voegli, a public defender representing Christenson, considers the charging decision appropriate: 'This is still a really serious charge.'

Burke disagrees, saying the DA's office 'screwed up,' potentially letting a dangerous criminal off lightly. Is this the kind of thing the office might do?

A dangerous criminal, take two

Speaking of crime and punishment, why is the DA's office, which laments that it no longer has resources to criminally prosecute low-level marijuana and drug paraphernalia cases, still pursuing felony charges against Madison resident Chris Lankford, 31, for (gasp!) passing a joint to another man at a pro-marijuana rally last year?

'That's his choice,' says Blanchard, referring to Lankford. He says his office still prosecutes distribution, which includes passing a joint, but usually handles minor cases as misdemeanors. But when Lankford refused to accept this, the office refiled the charges as a felony.

'We offered to treat it as a misdemeanor offense,' says Blanchard, 'so it's he who has opted to have a trial on a felony level.'

Lankford's attorney, Peter Steinberg, intends to contest the legality of the search, as he tried to do when it was a misdemeanor charge. He says the case shows the DA's office is still waging a nonsensical war on pot.

'How many years have DAs been claiming we don't prosecute minor marijuana cases?' Steinberg asks. 'They do. I haven't seen any change. They are pursuing an objectively stupid policy.'

Canned response

What exactly does the city of Madison plan to do with the tens of thousands of garbage cans residents will no longer need under its new bin collection system? Why, recycle them, of course!

'We will have a program in place,' vows city recycling czar George Dreckmann. 'We don't know how it will work yet.'

Details should arrive with the new bins, which the city will begin delivering in early July. Metal cans, as now, can be tossed at the curb ' just affix a note to let haulers know. Plastic cans will likely have to be taken to drop-off sites. Markets can be found for these items, but the city won't make money on the deal.

Residents will need their cans until Sept. 10, when the bin system begins. And of course, says Dreckmann, they can keep them: 'They make nice little tool holders for the garage.'

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