SHELL LAKE– "You are a danger to the public, Robin, when you drink," Barron County Circuit Judge J. Michael Bitney told Robin Johnson during the defendant's sentencing for his sixth operating while intoxicated (OWI) conviction.
As District Attorney Aaron Marcoux described Johnson during the hearing, he is a productive person when sober, but when he "falls of the rails," he falls hard.
Bitney sentenced Johnson, 40, of Shell Lake on January 4 to three years in prison and three years of extended supervision for driving while drunk on June 5, 2019. It was one more year of prison than Marcoux, Johnson's attorney Joseph Schieffer, and the Department of Corrections had recommended.
A Wisconsin State Patrol trooper had pulled Johnson over in the town of Beaver Brook, but not before Johnson sped away from the trooper and passed another vehicle on a hill at a high speed, then eventually abruptly pulled
over onto the shoulder.
He failed the roadside sobriety tests and said he had had a couple of drinks, though later he amended it to four, at a Spooner bar while en route from Hertel to Rice Lake.
Johnson was convicted of operating while intoxicated (OWI) and placed on probation for two years. It was his seventh OWI charge in September – this time in Burnett County – that broke his otherwise compliant probation and sent him back into court to be sentenced for the sixth OWI.
Johnson's past convictions were in 2000, 2001 (two), 2008, and 2011.
Bitney told him a silver lining is that he never killed anyone while he was drunk behind the wheel, but it is only a matter of time before tragedy will strike.
"This needs to stop," Bitney said.
"You are a good person. You are a capable person," Bitney told Johnson. The judge said Johnson is talented, gifted, intelligent, and he can be a contributing member of his tribe, community, and family.
But only if he maintains his sobriety.
The judge, Marcoux, and Schieffer agreed that Johnson is not a danger to society when he is sober but is a significant one when he drinks. Schieffer said it was complacency with his sobriety that led Johnson back into drinking.
Bitney reminded Johnson that he could be sentenced to 10 years in prison for a sixth OWI, and much life with family and friends would be lost. Parents and grandparents could pass away, and he would not be there.
What made the OWI worse, the judge said, was that Johnson's pattern seems to be "it's off to the races" when he sees the lights in his mirror, which aggravates the drunk driving conditions further.
"That's a deadly combination," Bitney said. "Eventually your luck is going to run out."
Bitney noted that Johnson had other convictions over the years: domestic abuse, disorderly conduct, reckless driving, drugs, assault.
He said it will be up to Johnson to learn how he can deal with the ups and downs of life, the stressors and anxiety. He must do the soul searching and tailor alcohol prevention programs to his needs.
Johnson said he had the past two months to think about what he had and had not done to get where he was.
"I did indulge in alcohol to end up in this position," he said. "But what I didn't do is I failed to ask for help when I'm at a low point, a weak point."
He said that when he is sober, he is very productive, a good father and employee, a good person overall.
But with alcohol, he said, he fails.
"I do realize I am an alcoholic and, you know, I battle a lot with my alcoholism and I try to do my best but it just seems never enough and here I am."
He said he will continue to fight to be the person he wants to be.
Bitney said he has seen many people go through the courts with alcohol problems, and some have gone on to do amazing things, paying forward, even to strangers, "because they've been there."
He said he hopes Johnson's future holds that for him, too.
Bitney passed on some advice a dear friend had once said: If you want to avoid slipping and falling, then stay out of slippery places.