Tevlin: Legislators fight to keep their immunity from DWIs during session

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2014 - 6:49 PM

Some political science students from Concordia University are getting a peek inside the sausage factory this legislative session, and they are coming away with new views on how our political process works, and it’s not always pretty.

You probably heard the adage about laws and sausages: It’s best not to see them being made.

Well, some political science students from Concordia University are getting a peek inside the sausage factory this legislative session, and they are coming away with new views on how our political process works, and it’s not always pretty.

The students are part of a course about how laws are created and passed at the Legislature. Instead of limiting the class to book learning, Prof. Jayne Jones had students research and write a bill and actually get someone to carry it for passage.

The current class effort seems like a bipartisan no-brainer, particularly during an “unsession” in which arcane laws are supposed to be eliminated.

Currently, the Minnesota Constitution gives legislators what amounts to a “get-out-of-jail-free” card during the session, allowing them “legislative immunity” from arrest in all cases except “treason, felony and breach of the peace.”

The eight students want to add drunken driving to the breach of peace exception to make sure politicians are not getting away with it during the session.

What kind of dope would oppose that?

Well …

The students started their mission with a lot of heavy lifting, doing background checks on legislators. They have no hard evidence that lawmakers are getting out of drunken driving, but they’ve heard quite a few anecdotes.

“We saw that [legislators] were getting DUIs from May through December,” said Adam Goinz, a senior history major and political science minor. “Ironically, or not so ironically, they weren’t getting them during the session. That’s kind of strange.”

Indeed.

“Impaired driving is really, really bad, whether you are a legislator or not,” said Goinz. “I also think that legislators should not be above the laws that they make.”

The idea of legislative immunity comes from 17th-century British conflicts, in which rulers had some lawmakers arrested to keep them from important votes. But the law is now outdated, particularly when it comes to drunken driving, students say.

“When anybody in the public is told about the [immunity], they are shocked,” said Goinz.

Hope Baker is another student who used her spring break last week to fight for the bill, called the Legislative Immunity Act of 2014.

“We have had legislators tell us ‘I would rather have them drive drunk than miss a vote,’ and ‘I love my card,’ ” Baker said, incredulously.

“I had a committee member tell me last week that he knew of someone who used their card in a suburb two weeks before that, and justified it by saying there were not cab services in the area,” Baker added.

The students checked, and there were several cab companies serving the area.

So far, the bill has been heard in two House committees, and they are hoping to get it heard in the Senate.

But by midweek, Jones sounded exasperated as legislators and administrators put up roadblocks, insisting the students take it to more and more committees, she thinks, in order to kill it.

Some referred derisively to the bill as “your little college project,” even though the students were doing exactly what lobbyists from corporations and unions do.

“Maybe we just weren’t spending enough money,” Jones said.

“A committee administrator wanted us to prove there were incidents [of legislators evading DWIs], but we called police and they said they can’t tell us if a legislator used his immunity card,” Jones said.

Over and over, “it was politics over policy,” she said. “These are lessons you can’t get from a book.”

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said the students were “bullied and badgered” in the Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. It doesn’t matter whether there’s proof that immunity has been used for drunken driving or not, he said.

“There’s no defense to be against this bill. Nobody should drive drunk. It’s a black eye to Minnesota.”

Concordia students tried to pass a similar bill two years ago, but it got lost in the stadium debate, “and they said they didn’t want it brought up in an election year,” Goinz said.

Some legislators embraced the idea and sponsored it. Others openly opposed to the drunken driving stipulation made the excuse that students were trying to change the state Constitution, which they weren’t.

“There is no reason this shouldn’t pass easily and quickly,” Baker said. “It’s sad and disheartening.”

Stay tuned. If the students’ attempt to hold lawmakers accountable to drunken driving laws fails, we will be eager to name all those who got in the way in a future column.

(Note to law enforcement: If you know of legislators using the card during traffic stops, call or write to me.)

 

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702 Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

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