Tevlin: The ‘Tevlin Amendment’ aside, immunity card law needed

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2014 - 9:16 AM

Journalists always remember their “firsts.” First byline in a newspaper. First front-page story. First time a legislator tries to invalidate your opinion by amendment during a floor debate.

That final accomplishment happened Wednesday, when Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, called my April 5 column “lazy” and “inaccurate.”

I had written about a group of Concordia students trying to pass a bill that would clarify an “immunity” card legislators carry. The card vaguely states that they cannot be arrested during the sessions for anything except a felony, treason or breach of peace, an archaic nod to a time when a king or executive might arrest a politician for a civil crime to keep them from voting.

I thought the students had a good idea in making the law clear, stipulating that a legislator couldn’t, say, drive drunk and get away with it. I also named those who voted against it.

In response, Garofalo then tried to attach the following amendment to the bill, before removing it:

“No part of this act should give credibility or legitimacy to the inaccurate reporting of this issue by a major newspaper that was done on April 5, 2014.”

Thus was born the Tevlin Amendment.

I hadn’t planned to write about the issue again, but the hearing on the bill Wednesday night more resembled a Gophers hockey playoff “celebration” than a legal debate.

During that hearing Garofalo also demanded an apology from me for my inaccuracy, which was inadvertently dropping the first of Rep. Mary Liz Holberg’s two first names, calling her simply, Liz.

I knew better. I’d written a positive column about how Holberg, R-Lakeville, was able to cooperate with political opponents to pass a good bill.

It turns out Holberg had responded to a constituent about my column, also discounting it because of my typo, and wouldn’t you know that in doing so she misspelled my name. I guess no one is perfect.

But I certainly wouldn’t hold Holberg’s typo against her to disprove her entire argument on an issue, just as I wouldn’t take a politician’s errant quip, say on Twitter, to condemn his character or belief system.

You might remember that just last month, it was Garofalo who was apologizing for a tweet in which he said that the only thing you’d notice if the NBA shut down would be a rise in the crime rate.

Woops. Some people found the tweet to be racist. I have no opinion on that, but I will say that a guy who tweets about basketball and writes amendments against newspaper columns sure seems to have a lot of idle time on his hands.

Legislators who are against the Concordia students’ bill seem to say this: The card already can’t be used to get out of a crime (though it’s not been tested in the state’s highest court), besides nobody does it, but please don’t take the card away.

The bill passed the House last week but was tabled in the Senate.

One legislator who seemed to grasp the concept of the issue was Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who has a family full of law officers. He once showed the card to them at a gathering, asking what they would do if a legislator they stopped for a traffic infraction presented it.

“I don’t think I’d risk [arresting them],” his brother told him.

“It’s about clarity and public perception,” Zerwas said in an interview. “We could very easily simply handle this like adults. I was pretty shocked to see grown men throw temper tantrums [at the hearing] over this.”

To those legislators who deny anyone has used the immunity card, let me introduce you to Bill Chaplin, a former cop who was so mad he had to let a drunk legislator go that he kept the case file.

For 40 years.

In 1969, Chaplin stopped a former representative (now dead), who seemed drunk. The man waved his immunity card, saying, “you can’t arrest us, we have immunity.” Chaplin called his supervisor, who took the legislator and his passenger to a cafe to sober up.

Chaplin was angry, and after the session got a prosecutor to charge him with DWI and careless driving. But because police hadn’t done blood tests, the DWI was dropped. The judge in the case, however, said that the card should not prevent officers from arresting legislators who violate the law.

It appears, however, many officers don’t know that. Two other readers contacted me through anonymous e-mail accounts and said they were current or former officers who had let drunk legislators go under order of their supervisors. I was unable to get them to return follow-up questions, but Chaplin said their stories sounded credible.

“They should get rid of this card, period,” Chaplin said. “Any officer who thinks their career couldn’t be in jeopardy if they arrested a legislator is crazy. Outstate, it’s even worse.”

So we don’t know if there have been three such situations in 40 years, or one, or many more.

Does it matter?

Because of Chaplin, we do know legislators’ claims that abuse of the card has never happened are “inaccurate.” Failing to clarify the law to make sure it doesn’t happen again is worse. You might even call it lazy.

 

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

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