Minnesota lawmakers will no longer be issued a “Get Out of Jail Free” card by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who said Wednesday that there is no law on the books that requires him to hand out the controversial cards that have long been a prized perk.
His decision brings an end to the wallet-sized cards that carry a simple but powerful statement of privilege: Under 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.
The cards have raised ire and concern among some who fear they literally put legislators above the law, including getting them out of drunken driving or other arrests. The House voted this session to rescind the card, but a similar measure was tabled in the Senate.
Ritchie said his office watched closely for direction from the Legislature, but when the move stalled, he took action. “I don’t know what the motivation was 40-some years ago when this practice started in the Legislature, but with the debate this year it was the conclusion of everybody that there was no statutory or legislative requirement to do this,” said Ritchie, who is not running for re-election.
The move was lauded by some lawmakers, including Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who sponsored the House measure after a group of political science students at Concordia University made it their project to ensure legislative immunity did not extend to drunken driving.
Winkler said that while he supports Ritchie’s move, the law itself still should be clarified so police officers know what to do in the event they encounter a lawmaker. Winkler’s measure offers clarifying language that makes clear that felonies, gross misdemeanors or misdemeanors constitute “a breach of the peace for purposes of the Minnesota Constitution.” Because immunity does not extend to breaches of the peace, the language would nullify their immunity for those offenses.
“I think most people in state government didn’t understand this issue very well until this legislative session when that bill started to move,” said Winkler, who said he carries his card because he sees it as “a little bit of tradition.” Historically, the cards were issued to keep adverse interests from arresting lawmakers to prevent them from voting.
But the move to stop issuing the cards may be premature, said former Minnesota State Sen. John Howe, who is among the Republican candidates vying for secretary of state once Ritchie steps down.
“I think it’s important to make the distinction that those cards do not prevent anyone from being charged with a crime, regardless of what that crime is,” said Howe, who said he never used his card when he was in the Senate. “It isn’t about keeping someone immune from the laws. We should never have lawmakers immune from the laws that govern our state.”
Howe’s fellow Republican candidate Dan Severson, a former state representative, said he would err on the side of printing the cards until the Legislature ordered him not to.
“I do understand that Ritchie may think it’s a bad idea, but I don’t know that he’s got the latitude to unilaterally not print them just because he thinks it’s a bad idea,” said Severson, who said that in eight years, he “never pulled the card.”
“Typically the way it was explained, the only reason you would ever pull the card is if you got pulled over for a traffic violation or something similar and it would postpone you from being the voice of the people,” he said.
Last month, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson supported an initiative to clarify the long-standing provision, saying that state law, as it applies to modern cases, would not get legislators out of an arrest for DWI or any other crime. However, she wrote, “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.”
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who chairs the Judiciary Committee that tabled the bill in the Senate this session, called Ritchie’s decision a “smart move.” But he maintains that instead of further legislation, the better option would be educating the public and law enforcement that legislators are not immune from arrest. Latz said he hadn’t seen his card until cleaning up some files in his office recently.
Rep. Debra Hilstrom, a Democratic secretary of state candidate who voted for Winkler’s measure, said she doesn’t even carry her card. Hilstrom said there should be a law making clear there are no special privileges.
Winkler said he doesn’t envision Ritchie’s move will endanger lawmakers by making them more vulnerable for arrest in order to keep them from key votes.
“The only thing it could do is help them, by preventing them from making a fool of themselves by trying to use it.” he said.