Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson supported an initiative to clarify a long-standing provision that gives lawmakers immunity from arrest during the legislative session, but a key Senate lawmaker countered that education, not legislation, is key to clearing up misconceptions about the law.
The so-called “Get Out of Jail Free Card” has been the source of debate and controversy at the Capitol because some believe it could extend to drunken driving. A bill to do away with its privilege cleared the Minnesota House earlier this month, but the Senate has not yet addressed the issue.
The card given to legislators says that under Article 4, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution, lawmakers “in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest” while the Legislature is in session. Political science students at Concordia University St. Paul have reprised efforts to make it clear that such immunity does not extend to drunken driving or other crimes.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote Swanson asking her to clarify what exactly the law means.
In a three-page response, Swanson said the law, as it applies to modern cases, would not get legislators out of an arrest for DWI or any other crime.
Still, Swanson wrote, “I believe it would be helpful and beneficial for the Minnesota Legislature to give additional direction to legislative members, the public, law enforcement and the courts by enacting legislation to clarify that legislators have no immunity from arrest for criminal activity, including the crime of driving while intoxicated.”
Latz said he agreed with Swanson that educating lawmakers, the public, police and the courts about the law’s true meaning is necessary.
“Yet, I’m not convinced putting something in law twice will actually resolve any misunderstanding of current law,” Latz said in a statement. “Instead, I propose to meet our shared goal ‘to clarify that state legislators have no immunity for arrest for criminal conduct, including driving while intoxicated,’ through a coordinated, robust education effort.”
Among those efforts, Latz said, is tossing out the wallet-sized cards, “as there is no evidence of a lawmaker being detained for civil arrest in over 200 years.” If the card is necessary, he added, it should be clear that it doesn’t make legislators exempt from drunken driving.
“We should train our police officers and sheriff’s deputies on the fact that all drunk drivers — no matter who they are — should be duly arrested. And, most importantly, we need to make it clear to all new and veteran state legislators that they have absolutely no immunity from arrest for drunken driving.” Latz said.