A city council member's drunken driving arrest and what it means for media information
Also, the details are pretty shocking
The news that city council member Sarah Watson had been arrested for drunken driving in January came as a surprise. But it also highlights a number of problems in current news gathering.
One, that first offense drunken driving is a citation. And two, the difficulty now of getting timely information.
It’s not the first time this has come up. When current state rep Pat Snyder was running for re-election, myself and another journalist got a tip he’d gotten a second OWI himself.
How’d both of those OWIs slip our collective radars? In Wisconsin, first offense drunken driving is considered a citation-worthy offense, handled in municipal court. (And in Snyder’s case, enough time had lapsed between his first and second that his second was treated as a first offense, and also handled in municipal court.) Which means they don’t go through the Marathon County court system, a much easier way to track offenses.
I and other media outlets regularly check jail logs. We’re sent them every day. They contain listings of initial appearances for criminal offenses committed across the county, and even those who are bonded out for lesser offenses. So even those who don’t stay in jail appear on the list.
Both Watson and Snyder’s names never appeared there. That’s because they’re handled at the municipal level, and there are dozens of municipalities in the county. Even during the heydays of journalism with a dozen reporters working in a Wausau newsroom, it’s doubtful they would have checked each municipal court docket regularly.
The details of Watson’s arrest are rather shocking. According to the report, she wasn’t just a little bit tipsy or even a lot tipsy — she was so drunk, according to the report, that she didn’t seem to know where she was and she was asleep at the wheel as officers approached. Officers asked for her insurance card; she handed them a COVID vaccination card and her ID badge.
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