Front side of privilege from arrest card
Back side of privilege from arrest card
SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- State lawmakers are subject to the the laws they make, with one surprising exception. They can't be arrested for a misdemeanor during the session.
"Every time we talk to legislators about this they pull out their card and tell us, 'Oh, you're talking about this card'?" Jayne Jones, a Concordia University adjunct professor, told KARE.
The card, issued to all 201 legislators, and signed by the Secretary of State, certifies that the lawmaker carrying it is entitled to privileges stated on the back of the card. The back quotes Article IV, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution.
"PRIVILEGE FROM ARREST. The members of each house in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest during the session of their respective houses and in going to or returning from the same."
Jones said she even witnessed a clearly drunken legislator last year bragging about his immunity from DWI arrests in a St. Paul bar last year.
"We watched him actually walk out of the pub, get in his truck and drive home and he could barely stand up," Jones recalled. "When he was leaving and I was outraged."
She described the event to her political science students at Concordia, who volunteered another disturbing example. They said a fellow student who interned at the Capitol went out for dinner with a group that included two senators.
"When it was time to leave the Kelly Inn, one of the senator said she could drive because she had immunity," Concordia senior Taylor Gittens explained.
"The senator ended up hitting a median on the way home, and the student intern was very frightened and upset."
Jones and her students decided to make changing the law their spring project in their Minnesota Legislature course. The students couldn't find any record of any of the current legislators being arrested for DWI's during sessions.
They realize only the voters can change the Constitution, so they're focusing on the language "breach of peace," seeking a statute that would include drunk driving in the definition of breach of peace in state law.
"It's just crazy to me that anyone in the United States can get arrested for a DWI, but these specific people can't because they're in session," Gittens remarked. "And they're in session to help people, not harm them."
Her classmate Coy Smith, a sophomore, said the students have been getting mixed reviews from lawmakers they pitch the bill to at the Capitol. The sponsors of the bills are on board, but there are plenty of skeptics as well.
"The kind of feedback we've gotten from most people is that we really don't know what we're talking about, or that we're just trying to make a name for ourselves," Smith told KARE.
"We just want everyone to know that we've done our research and we do know what we're talking about when it comes to this immunity."
The most high-profile cases of driving under the influence were both between sessions. Rep. Mark Buesgens made the news in September of 2011 after being stopped in Wright County. And Sen. Jim Metzen, was cited for a DWI in South St. Paul in 2007 only hours after gaveling the session to a close as Senate President.
Had those stops been made during session, the cards would've -- at least in theory -- kept their names out of news and the stop off their arrest records.
That section of the Constitution was written in the 1850's, when it wasn't far-fetched that lawmakers could have their adversaries arrested on trumped-up charges or minor infractions to keep them from getting to the Capitol to vote on key bills.
It's not known when the state began issuing actual cards to lawmakers. State Sen. John Harrington, a career police officer who rose to the rank of chief in St. Paul, told KARE that officers on the street were well aware of legislator immunity.
"It was covered in our police academy, when we went over special circumstances such as diplomatic immunity."
In the past few years Concordia Students have done well in winning over legislators. One well-publicized success was the passage of Kyle's Law, which requires schools to notify parents if their child's teacher is disciplined.
The immunity bill gets its first hearing in the House on Thursday.
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