A strange and little-known law in Minnesota grants immunity to state lawmakers for being arrested for a range of crimes, including things like drunk driving. A group of students from Concordia University recently learned about the bizarre law and came together to persuade a legislator to write and attempt to pass a bill that would abolish the exemption for drunk driving.
Though the bill’s prospects appeared to be promising, a Minnesota Senate judiciary committee voted this past week to table the measure, essentially putting it on ice. The vote upset students and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kathy Sheran, who say that legislators do not deserve immunity from the very laws they spend their days creating and imposing on others.
The issue in question goes back a long time and appears in the Minnesota Constitution. Specifically, the provision grants immunity to lawmakers during the legislative session for everything except felonies, treason and a more vague notion of “breaches of the peace.” The immunity was initially created with a good goal in mind, trying to ensure that legislators weren’t thrown in jail on bogus charges designed to keep them from voting on potentially important measures.
However, opponents of the law say that the provision has long since outlived its usefulness and that it is instead being used as a “get out of jail free” card. In fact, the students pointed out that legislators are handed an actual card explaining their rights, a card they can then hand to policemen if they are pulled over at some point during the legislative session.
The students backing an overhaul of the immunity provision simply asked that the language be changed to specifically include drinking while driving as a breach of the peace. This would ensure that legislators who decide to drink and drive can face the same penalties that they hand down to ordinary Minnesotans.
Though it might seem like an obvious bill to support, legislators didn’t take long to raise concerns with the reform. Some questioned whether the change was necessary and others argued that there was no real evidence that legislators had ever used the get out of jail free card to avoid drunk driving charges.
However, students who researched the case say that an intensive review of legislators’ driving records showed that arrests for drunk driving were made between May and December, when the legislative session is over, yet not a single such arrest has occurred during the months when the legislature is in session. The students said that either this was an amazing and improbable coincidence, or that legislators had indeed used their pass to avoid DWI charges.
For now, the measure appears to have lost momentum and will remain stalled in the judiciary committee. Advocates of change say they hope to muster enough support to eventually get the bill out of committee, perhaps next year. They say that it is high time that legislators be held to the same standard as normal Minnesota motorists.
Source: “Senate deals blow to DUI immunity repeal,” by Dan Linehan, published at MankatoFreePress.com.