The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 28, 2014

Houses disagree on DWI immunity

House passed bill but Senate sees it as not needed

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers' immunity to drunken driving arrests would end under a bill that passed a House committee on Friday, a day after the Senate's version was tabled by lawmakers who see it as unnecessary.

The archaic provision in the state constitution dates to 1858, when the state's founding fathers wanted to protect legislators from being arrested and detained from votes on important measures.

The Senate bill stalled during a Judiciary Committee hearing when Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, moved to table it. Newman said he agreed with the spirit of the measure, and said no legislator should be above the law.

But "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."

Eliminating the language has become a project for some political science students at Concordia University. One of them, 22-year-old senior Hope Baker, was instrumental in getting Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, to sponsor a bill.

After the House Civil Law Committee approved it, Baker said lawmakers who argue that the immunity isn't being abused are missing the point.

"They can't be arrested and detained — that's a fact," Baker said of lawmakers suspected of driving under the influence. "So the option to gather evidence for future prosecution isn't there."

Baker said comments by Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge and a retired sheriff's deputy, helped make her point during the hearing.

Johnson, who supports ending immunity, said law officers are taught they are subject to gross-misdemeanor charges and being fired if they intimidate members of the Legislature. That's a big reason no evidence exists of legislators evading drunk-driving charges, he said.

Rep. Susan Allen, a Democratic lawyer from Minneapolis, wondered during the hearing whether the entire exercise was academic. She said a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Williamson v. United States, allowed criminal prosecution of legislators.

"This seems to be a political issue, a good moot court question, not a legal question," Allen said.

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