ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A college project that alleged some state lawmakers might have used immunity to avoid drunken-driving arrests has sparked debate in Minnesota over whether to scrap a more than 150-year-old protection similar to those still on the books for Congress and most state legislatures.
At issue is a provision in the Minnesota Constitution from 1858 that was meant to protect legislators against being arrested to prevent them from voting on important measures. The state House voted 115-13 late Wednesday to lift the immunity despite arguments that no change is needed, and a state senator is trying to find a way to bring a similar proposal up for a vote in her chamber.
There is arrest immunity language in the U.S. Constitution and 44 other state constitutions, said Brenda Erickson, senior research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. There have been unsuccessful attempts to repeal the privilege in Arizona, including one drive that began in 2012 when a senator avoided arrest after getting into a fight with his girlfriend on a Phoenix freeway.
The doctrine of legislative immunity dates back to 16th and 17th century England when some monarchs would seek to intimidate legislators with the threat of arrest or prosecution. Federal and state courts have given varying interpretations of how far the protection extends, the conference says.
Minnesota state Sen. Kathy Sheran, D-Mankato, whose version of the immunity bill got bottled up in committee, acknowledged there are only anecdotes — not confirmed evidence — in recent years of lawmakers using immunity as "get out of jail free" cards.
"If the problem is that the general public believes that the card provides unnecessary and extraordinary privilege to elected officials that's beyond what's reasonable, treating them as special in relationship to the general public, then it is a problem," said Sheran, who doesn't carry her immunity card and isn't sure how many colleagues do.
Immunity became an issue in Minnesota two years ago as a project for Jayne Jones' political sciences students at Concordia University in St. Paul. The professor and her students said they became convinced by what they heard from lawmakers and police during their research that some legislators had abused their state-issued immunity cards to get away with driving drunk.
The proposal the class promoted to lift the privilege won committee approvals in 2012 but failed to get floor votes. So Jones said her class decided to try again this year
Jones and her students were taken by surprise Wednesday night when they learned they were getting a vote. She said one student who's a waitress paid $40 to get a co-worker finish out her shift. Another student, freshman Chris Ploch, of Apopka, Fla., was in his dorm room when he got the call.
"I was shocked. I was like, 'We need to get to the Capitol.' It was cool," he said.
Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said new legislation is unnecessary because U.S. Supreme Court decisions, as well as appellate courts and attorneys general in other states, have concluded that lawmakers are not immune from arrest for criminal acts, including drunken driving. He said he's very frustrated that that's been overlooked in a debate that he said is being driven by misperceptions.
"I think the real question is, do we pass laws for perception's sake or do we pass laws to actually govern?" Latz said. "I'm generally not in favor of passing laws just for the heck of it."