Highway to treatment: Inside La Crosse County’s OWI Treatment Court

How one La Crosse County man overcame alcohol addiction and five OWI convictions through treatment court

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Every hour, a drunken driver kills a person. La Crosse County leaders believe changing the behavior of those who chose to drink will lead to a solution.

A driver’s choice

The choices we make have consequences. Some are good. Some leave scars that last a lifetime.

“It was just another day at work,” said Cameron Hazzard of South Haven, Minn.

On October 3, Hazzard drove along Interstate 94 near Tomah, Wis., heading back home to Minnesota.

“I was on the road and the next thing I know, I’m upside-down in the ditch,” Hazzard said.

Hazzard’s hip shattered. Unable to walk, he crawled out his truck window and along the ground in pitch darkness to safety.

“I had to kind of like pry myself out,” he said. “It was some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced.”

A wrong-way driver collided with Hazzard’s truck and several other vehicles. The criminal complaint shows an officer found an open drink in the wrong way driver’s car.

OWI crisis in Wisconsin

“It is probably one of the most pressing issues for the state of Wisconsin.”

According to an FBI study, the average OWI offender drives drunk at least 80 times before being  caught.

Wisconsin OWI laws

Wisconsin is the only state where a first-offense OWI is not a crime. A first offense is equal to a traffic ticket.

“OWI one is non-criminal,” said Elliot Levine, a La Crosse County Circuit Court judge.”So, it’s not even a misdemeanor.”

It takes four convictions to be charged with a felony, Levine said. The law requires ignition interlock devices for drivers arrested with blood alcohol levels at 0.15 or higher and all repeat offenders.

“If you’re over .02 you can’t start your car,” Levine said.

The penalties are more severe if a child is in the car. A first-time offender with a child under 16 in the car can be charged with a misdemeanor offense. Levine believes tighter laws and more education help control the problem.

“It’s been better over the last 15 years,” Levine said.

Wisconsin records some of the highest convictions and alcohol-related crashes in the country. Nearly a third of Wisconsin’s OWI convictions are repeat offenders. Levine understands the calls for more jail time and penalties. However, he says this only delays the inevitable.

“If you don’t give them the ability to get a license,” Levine said. “They’re in all likelihood gonna drive anyway.”

La Crosse County OWI Treatment Court

In La Crosse County, drunken drivers are eligible for OWI Treatment Court.

“It’s all about choice,” said Dean Ciokiewicz, a former participant and former ambassador of La Crosse County’s OWI Treatment Court. “They don’t have to do any of it, but when a person decides they want to change that’s when growth can start.”

Making the right choices are not easy.

“I was getting headlines,” Ciokiewicz said. “I was getting arrested. My addiction just had me totally lost.”

Ciokiewicz said he made plenty of wrong decisions during his 40-year battle with addiction.

“I had several overdoses,” Ciokiewicz said.

A decade ago on Badger Street and West Avenue in La Crosse, red and blue lights appeared in Ciokiewicz’s rearview mirror. His fifth OWI. This street is the place where Ciokiewicz’s life changed.

“I just said a prayer, ‘God please end this madness I can’t do it anymore,’” Ciokiewicz said. “I had prayed that prayer for 20 years.”

Ciokiewicz made a life-changing choice by enrolling in La Crosse County’s OWI Treatment Court.

“I wasn’t used to a court caring,” he said. “I was used to, ‘lock ‘em up because they broke the law.’”

The court did not offer Ciokiewicz a free pass.

“$44,000, that’s what my fifth OWI cost me,” Ciokiewicz said.

The price of OWI crashes

Ciokiewicz is convinced he could have killed someone if he would have driven one more day.

“I’ve seen horror stories of guys of people that were put in jail for a long time for vehicular homicide,” Ciokiewicz said.

For those who think this only affects people with major alcohol problems, consider these numbers.

“The most fatalities happen with OWI firsts,” Levine said.

A 2019 UW-Madison Population Health Institute study found 58 percent of people arrested for OWI, who caused injuries or death in a crash, had no prior OWI arrests.

“Are they intentional in the sense that I intended to kill somebody? No,” Levine said. “Are they responsible? Absolutely.”

Ciokiewicz begs people to leave their keys at home if they plan to drink, or he said the same key might change a person’s life.

“It might be the prison door key,” Ciokiewicz said. “The one the jailer keeps when he locks you up.”

Impact of alcohol treatment programs

Do these treatment courts work? Levine said there is no definite proof. However, UW-Madison found drivers who participate in Wisconsin’s Intoxicated Driver Program were far less likely to be arrested again than those who chose not to comply.

Hazzard, Ciokiewicz and Levine all have different perspectives. Nonetheless, they have a unified warning to drivers. All it takes is one time.

“I got a lot of calls from my 5-year-old,” Hazzard said. “She’s an emotional little girl and she missed her dad and I love her to pieces.”

After the crash, Hazzard returned home and hugged his family again.

“I’m busted up and I’m in a lot of pain, but I’m alive,” Hazzard said.

Homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle

Another driver involved in the crash did not, he was 29 years old. The Monroe County District Attorney charged Carrie Herbst with first-degree reckless homicide and homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. According to Wisconsin Court Records, Herbst has no prior convictions. If convinced in this one crash, she could spend a century behind bars.

“I haven’t been able to walk since the accident,” Hazzard said. “All the lives that were changed and everybody that’s gotta deal with this.”

The consequences of someone else’s poor choice.

“Wait for the cab, it’s worth it,” Ciokiewicz said.

Impact of OWI treatment court

Upon graduation from treatment court a decade ago, Ciokiewicz chose a life of sobriety and a life of service.

“It’s called experience,” he said. “It’s called strength and it’s called hope.”

Hope this program will help someone else.

“We are here to save the community,” Levine said. “We’re here to keep the community safe.

Teaching people to make the right choices to prevent one more death on Wisconsin’s roads.

“We know that if we can change our behavior, it will keep us safer,” Levine said.

Calls for stricter penalties 

Drivers under the influence of Marijuana can also be charged with an OWI. Several Wisconsin lawmakers are pushing for ignition interlock devices for all OWI first offenses.  Some proposals would make all first offense OWIs criminal misdemeanors.

To help Cameron Hazzard’s family with medical costs associated with the crash, people can visit Hazzard’s GoFundme page.

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