By Dan Linehan
---- — ST. PAUL — A bill to take away lawmakers’ immunity from arrest for drunken driving, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Sheran, was tabled by a judiciary panel Thursday.
“It lets you know that politics is a dirty game,” said Akolade Gbadamosi, a junior at Concordia University. He’s one of a group of students who persuaded legislators, including the Mankato Democrat, to carry the bill and helped shepherd it through committees.
The setback greatly dims the bill’s prospects, especially because the committee's last meeting is today. Sheran appeared to have been the only vote in favor, but the vote was taken by voice so there’s not an official record of votes.
The Minnesota Constitution gives lawmakers immunity from arrest during session in all cases except for felonies, treason and breach of the peace. This provision was apparently intended to prevent lawmakers from being arrested on trumped-up charges, especially in civil cases, in order to keep them from attending key votes.
The bill was on life support after it failed to meet a House deadline last week, but its prospects were revived Saturday by House Speaker Paul Thissen.
“If I have anything to do with it, this law will be changed this year,” he wrote on Twitter.
It’s sometimes called a “get out of jail free” card, and legislators actually do get a little card detailing their rights under the Constitution.
Instead of changing the state Constitution, the bill changes the definition of “breach of the peace,” to include driving while intoxicated.
“It’s kind of common sense,” said Chris Plotch, a freshman. “Why should a legislator be above the law that they make?”
On its surface, the bill makes a simple case that has broad appeal.
“Should they be allowed to drive drunk during session?” committee Chair Ron Latz asked. “Everyone will say no.”
But it soon became clear that it wasn’t that simple.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he doubts that legislators are using their immunity to avoid arrest for drunken driving. He asked Sheran if there were any records of that happening.
Sheran said students pored over legislators’ driving records and found drunken driving convictions between May and December, when session was out. But there were no such convictions during the months that session is held. It’s statistically impossible, Sheran said, that mere chance explains those results; some lawmakers must have been using their card to avoid arrest.
Sheran’s fellow senators were unconvinced.
Newman said “it would surprise me greatly if a police officer pulled over a legislator (for DUI) and failed to take him in. … It almost seems like an academic exercise, the kind of thing we would see in law school, discuss the pros and cons.”
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he’d heard of a legislator who tried to use his card after being pulled over for drunken driving. It didn’t work; he was taken to jail.
And the opposition was bipartisan.
Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said the card already doesn’t apply to DUI.
The intent of these laws, which exist elsewhere, concerned civil law violations, he said after talking to Senate Counsel Ken Backhus.
He also suggested that media coverage may have created the perception that a problem exists. It’s not enough to say, in other words, that lawmakers are allowed to drive drunk and assume that legislation is necessary.
Latz said he’s “troubled that we should legislate for a problem that we don’t know exist, just for the purposes of, I don’t know, comfort in some ways.”
Sheran responded that it wasn’t simply a feel-good law just because there’s no proof a problem exists.
“The best laws are written proactively, because they determine the rules of the game,” she said. … “And that’s what the students are saying, we want to be more explicit about the expectations here.”
After the voice vote, Sheran said she wished she’d called for a roll call vote, which would have put each senator’s vote on the record. She said the panel had done the students an injustice by voting to table the motion instead of giving it an up-or-down vote.