OWI Law

Feb. 11, 2021 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court has unanimously upheld an operating while intoxicated (OWI) conviction, eighth offense, despite the defendant’s argument that the state did not meet its burden to prove a prior OWI conviction from 30 years ago.

Alfonso Loayza was convicted of an eighth OWI offense in circuit court. But a state appeals court reversed after concluding the state did not prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Loayza was previously convicted for OWI in California in 1990.

Because the sentences for OWI convictions vary based on the number of prior convictions, the appeals court remanded for resentencing. The state appealed.

In State v. Loayza, 2021 WI 11 (Feb. 11, 2021), the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously reversed the appeals court, concluding the state met its burden of proof in showing Loayza was convicted of an OWI offense in California three decades ago.

“[B]ased on a review of the record before us … we determine that it is more likely than not that Loayza was convicted in California of OWI in 1990,” wrote Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, noting the record included competent proof Loayza’s own admissions.

OWI Arrest and Arguments

Police stopped Loayza for speeding in 2012 in Rock County. He admitted to recently drinking and a breath test revealed a 0.14 blood alcohol concentration. His driving record, available to police on scene, revealed he had eight prior OWI convictions.

He was charged with OWI, ninth offense. The complaint alleged three prior OWI convictions in California and five priors OWI convictions in Wisconsin.

Loayza didn’t contest the existence of the prior convictions, but argued that his guilty pleas in the California cases in 1989, 1990, and 1991, may have been entered without counsel and he may have been sentenced without notice of right to counsel.

The circuit court denied his motion and Loayza agreed to plead guilty to a ninth offense OWI on condition that the state prove his number of prior convictions.

The state submitted Loayza’s driving record, listing eight prior OWIs, and documents from California on each of the convictions. He conceded one conviction, but argued the state failed to establish the existence of the two other convictions.

Joe ForwardJoe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

The circuit court rejected his arguments, convicted him on a ninth offense, and sentenced him to five years in prison with five years extended supervision.

His postconviction motions continued to challenge two of his California convictions, and he was successful on one. The court amended the conviction to an eighth offense.

But circuit court did not find reason to strike his 1990 conviction. Loayza offered several arguments to challenge the 1990 conviction, noting the documentation from the 1990 conviction was not certified and did not list the ultimate disposition of the charges.

The plea form in the 1990 court record noted only that Loayza pleaded guilty to a “vehicle code” violation under the statute for operating while suspended or revoked. But the circuit court concluded that Loayza had already conceded the 1990 OWI conviction.

The appeals court reversed, concluding the state’s evidence was not sufficient to demonstrate Loayza was convicted of OWI in 1990 because the materials “cast doubt.”

Supreme Court Upholds Conviction

A unanimous state supreme court said the evidence was sufficient, reversing the appeals court. Although the state did not offer a certified copy of the judgment of conviction from the 1990 case, the supreme court said that was not “fatal.”

“[T]his court has previously stated that ‘the convictions may be proven by certified copies of conviction or other competent proof offered by the state before sentencing,’” Justice A.W. Bradley wrote. The court said the state had other competent proof.

Among the other competent proof was a certified driving record from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which shows a conviction for OWI in 1990.

The court rejected Loayza’s argument that the underlying documentation did not support the 1990 OWI conviction that was noted on his driving record.

On that point, the appeals court had agreed with Loayza. But the supreme court did not agree because “the record contains several actions on Loayza’s part that can reasonably be construed as admissions to the 1990 conviction.”

“We have previously opined that ‘a defendant’s admission, whether given personally or imputed through counsel, is competent proof of prior . . . convictions,’” wrote Justice A.W. Bradley, noting the precedent applies to prior OWI convictions.