Ask Minnesota legislators whether they should be immune from drunken-driving arrests and their answer generally is what constituents expect to hear: “Of course not.”
But when state lawmakers are asked to write that common sense specifically into statute, their actions — or in this case, their inactions — speak far louder than their words. Legislation sensibly clarifying lawmakers’ historical protection against executive branch abuses of power — such as law enforcement detentions designed to impede a vote — by establishing that it does not shield lawmakers from drunken-driving arrests has screeched to a halt in the DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate.
Senators should take a cue from their colleagues in the Minnesota House, where there’s broad bipartisan support for a bill dubbed a “no-brainer” by many House members, who face an election this fall, unlike the Senate. At a minimum, the Senate’s DFL leadership needs to get the legislation out of committee and to a floor debate. There, senators could make their case for or against the bill in the spotlight that comes with a vote of the entire chamber.
Unlike the process in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill stalled about a week ago, a floor vote also would ensure that lawmakers’ individual positions on the legislation are recorded. Only a voice vote was taken when the bipartisan eight-member committee moved to table the bill, so it’s not clear who voted to do so. The committee’s chairman is Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who said Thursday that he was among those who voted to table it.
This legislation shouldn’t die a quiet, obscure death. It deserves a higher-profile debate on the floor where those opposed to it — who say it’s unnecessary — can explain their objections. Voters also should be given the chance to hold their elected officials accountable for how they voted on a bill with broad appeal.
The legislation is being carried in the Senate by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and in the House by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. But its most vocal proponents are students from Concordia University in St. Paul who seized upon this issue in a political science class and are pushing legislators to make the change.
The students’ efforts are a terrific example of citizens’ ability to engage in the Minnesota legislative process. Their professor, Jayne Jones, took a hands-on approach to their education after coming across an ugly scene she claims to have witnessed in a St. Paul bar a few years ago: a lawmaker who loudly bragged about the ability to drive drunk with impunity due to legislative privileges. Jones would not disclose the legislator’s name.
The students’ high-profile push has put a welcome spotlight on the little known “privilege from arrest” provision within the Minnesota Constitution, which states that members of each house, in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest during the session, or while going to or from their duties. These protections have long roots in common law and date at least to medieval times, when English monarchs would abuse their authority to detain or otherwise thwart members of Parliament they didn’t like.
The legislation pushed by the students would make it clear that drunken driving is a breach of the peace and, thus, legislators could not wave the wallet-sized card they carry stating their constitutional protections to get out of an arrest.
Opponents of the legislation, such as Latz, say that there’s no evidence this has happened and that case law makes it clear the privilege does not extend to drunken driving. Opponents also point out that protections against arrest do not shield lawmakers from subsequent prosecution for drunken driving.
The bill’s advocates, such as Concordia senior Hope Baker, argue that getting out of a drunken-driving arrest is tantamount to escaping prosecution because evidence about alcohol levels might not be gathered immediately. Incidents of legislators invoking the privileges also may go unreported.
Among the high-profile law enforcement supporters of the bill is Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a retired 32-year police officer. He blasted the procedural roadblocks in the Senate as “smoke and mirrors” designed to protect lawmakers from answering to the public about their support for special treatment for politicians.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, expressed support for the legislation Thursday if he can be sure that the change does not create a loophole that downgrades a drunken-driving offense to a lesser breach-of-the-peace violation.
The Senate DFL leadership, which relayed requests for comment to Latz, needs to find a way to get this bill out of procedural limbo. Those opposed to the legislation say the facts are in their favor. If their case is as strong as they say it is, they should have no problem explaining their position to their colleagues on the floor and being held accountable by voters.