Tevlin: These legislators won't let go of DWI exemption

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2014 - 9:24 PM

Raise your hand if you think there is any way that elected state legislators should be able get out of a drunken-driving arrest simply because of their jobs.

Good, pretty much unanimous.

Now raise your hand if you think we need to prove legislators are indeed using a little known “get out of jail” card to evade drunken driving in order to make it clear that they can’t. Keep in mind law enforcement officers say they don’t document or report any time a legislator uses the card to escape a ticket or worse, so we really don’t know if — or how many — are.

It seems simple, though: Specify on the card, given to legislators after each election, that it doesn’t cover drunken driving.

But tell that to the Concordia University students trying to add that clause to the law. Legislators from both parties have stalled, argued, bullied and mocked the students for their efforts, as I wrote about two weeks ago, when I promised to name those who didn’t support or tried to stop the bill.

So here goes. The bill passed two House committees more than a week ago. Those who voted against it were DFL representatives Michael Nelson and Rick Hansen and Republican representatives Jeff Howe and Liz Holberg.

The bill was tabled in the senate Judiciary Committee, with only bill sponsor Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, offering a voice vote in favor. Rep. Kari Dziedzic later said she supported the bill, Sheran said.

The others in the committee who were present were Ron Lantz and Bobby Jo Champion, DFLers, and Warren Limmer and Dan Hall, Republicans. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, tabled it, saying in a statement he doubted officers would let a drunk legislator go.

If you think the students’ bill makes common sense, please act accordingly. (Contacts for them are found here: www.house.leg.state.mn.us/members/hmem.asp and here: www.senate.mn/members/index.php?ls)

Those opposed to the change that I’ve spoken with seem to hold the same justifications, or excuses: We don’t think our colleagues are abusing this law, and we think law enforcement would arrest them if they were drunk, regardless of how vague their immunity rule is.

Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, has told the students he’s adamantly against the bill. He told me in an e-mail, “My major issue is the historical seriousness of the ability of any executive branch to detain a legislator,” he wrote. “I cannot imagine any officer allowing any drunk to get back in his or her automobile.”

Really? A small town cop stops a driver who is weaving over the line. Driver says he’s a state senator, and shows them a Legislature-issued card that says they cannot be arrested during the session except for a “felony, treason or breach of the peace.”

Unless the legislator is unquestionably drunk, I can certainly see an intimidated law officer thinking this stop might not be worth the hassle, or the potential threat to his career, and simply saying, “Have a nice night.”

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, agrees with me.

“We shouldn’t be putting officers on the spot like that,” said Cornish, a former sheriff and police officer.

“We shouldn’t let them drive, and they shouldn’t be above the law,” Cornish said.

He thinks specifically citing DWI on the card, as the students want, would clear things up.

Former legislator Wayne Simoneau said during his tenure, which ended in 1995, it was assumed a legislator would get a ticket for DWI, but not be fined or imprisoned until the end of the session.

He cited a case several years ago when he said a former Duluth legislator with an open bottle was taken home and later fined.

“The story was that years ago some thought that legislators were jailed to stop certain votes from happening — old folklore,” said Simoneau.

If legislators really think their colleagues are so corrupt that they would falsely arrest and imprison them over a vote, then our political house is in way worse shape than I feared it was.

Folklore should not dictate immunity laws, and law officers shouldn’t have any question as to whether they should give a legislator a sobriety test or not.

Sheran said she hopes to attach the issue to another bill and get it passed on the floor, perhaps this week. “Special privileges for legislators make voters distrustful of government,” she said.

Exactly.

If you are looking for a ray of hope in any of this, here it is: In an era when the parties can rarely agree on anything, it seems there are enough nitwits on both sides of the aisle to rise up for a cause — their own vested self-interest and an archaic sense of entitlement.

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

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