Are Lawmakers Getting A Special Exemption From Drunk Driving Arrests?

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"Are Lawmakers Getting A Special Exemption From Drunk Driving Arrests?"

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Written into Minnesota’s constitution is a 19th century provision that exempts state lawmakers from arrest for certain violations, like drunk driving. Lawmakers receive a physical card that grants them “privilege from arrest,” except for treason, felony, and breach of the peace,” that lasts for an active legislative session. Critics from the Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the House and Senate, and Concordia University say it amounts a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.

Minnesota is not alone: In 2012, a Colorado Republican invoked her legislative privilege during a DUI stop with a police officer. Some 43 states have versions of legislative immunity.

After a group of Concordia University political science students raised the issue, Minnesota has become a kind of bellwether on the issue. Wednesday night, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed a bill to remove legislative immunity, clarifying that any “breach of the peace” would include drunk driving. It passed on a 115 to 13 vote. However, a similar bill in the Senate has faced a dead-end in committee due to surprising resistance in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The debate is over whether existing law adequately removes DWI immunity or if the confusion warrants a new law.

According to House bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Winkler (D), Minnesota’s immunity law as written creates confusion for both legislators and law enforcement over what to do if a representative or senator is caught driving drunk.

“The concern is that by not passing this law there is a big chilling effect on police officers to enforce the law,” Winkler told ThinkProgress. He thinks it is worth addressing so that representatives do not appear to be above the law. “Public perception is something we should be concerned about.” Mothers Against Drunk Driving cites the bill as one way the state can improve its poor rating on drunk driving.

Bill opponents generally agree with the principle that legislators should not have special treatment, but contend that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1908, Williamson v. United States, already allows for prosecution.

Sen. Scott Newman (R) opposed the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, moving to table it and killing its chances for a floor vote. While he did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment, he has previously claimed a new law is redundant and unnecessary. “As we’ve heard from the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you fail an impaired driving test you will be arrested,” Newman said in a statement Friday. “I have faith in our law enforcement to handle these situations properly. If there is evidence of abuse of power that would be curbed by passing this bill, I will gladly move to reconsider.”

The Senate’s bill sponsor Sen. Kathy Sheran (D) told ThinkProgress that legislators are now asking the Attorney General for clarification on whose interpretation is the right one. In the meantime, she is looking for other avenues to pass it in the Senate, including attaching it as an amendment to a related bill.

Does the immunity card cause legislators to think differently about violating the law? It is difficult to answer, because no one has offered a verified story about a drunk driving incident. But anecdotally, one advocate for the bill says she has heard legislators say “‘I would rather have them drive drunk than miss a vote.'”

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