Is it last call for Minn. legislators' free ride on DWIs?

Students' efforts are behind push to revise constitutional protection.

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Students in a government class at Concordia University in St. Paul have written a bill that would limit immunity from prosecution that Minnesota state legislators currently enjoy. Their bill, referred to as "No Boozin' and Cruzin' in Minnesota," has already been approved by the house Public Safety Committee will be heard by a senate committee on Thursday. Jayne Jones and her Minnesota Legislature class Wednesday evening, March 21, 2012 in Meyer Hall on the Concordia Univesity, St. Paul campus. The students are, from left, Rachel Wolbrink, Ariel Buczak, Gabriel Sims, Taylor Gittens, Nate Thienes, and Coy Smith.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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A group of outraged Minnesota college students is on the verge of scuttling an age-old perk at the Capitol.

It's a privilege known as legislative immunity, giving lawmakers a potential pass on most offenses that fall short of treason or felony when the Legislature is in session.

But now two legislators, at the urging of students from Concordia University in St. Paul, are working to at least restrain that immunity so lawmakers cannot use it to escape drunken-driving charges.

The students' campaign started with a comment overheard in a bar.

Concordia Prof. Jayne Jones told her political science students she'd heard a legislator brag that because of legislative immunity, he could drink and drive with no threat of punishment.

Students went to state Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, and Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who agreed to sponsor bills to restrict immunity. Parry's bill will be heard in a Senate committee Thursday, while Kriesel's bill is working its way through the House.

"I don't think any political person is above the law when it comes to breaking the law," Parry said. "I can't think of one legislator that wouldn't be willing to vote for this."

Taylor Gittens, one of the Concordia students seeking the change, said in testimony at a House committee that "We are removing any temptation to use legislative immunity for drinking and driving as a legislator."

The immunity clause in the state's Constitution is a powerful one, stating that "in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace,'' members of the House and Senate cannot be arrested during a legislative session.

The bills would define drunken driving as a "breach of the peace," removing an offender's immunity from arrest, even if the potential charges do not rise to the level of a felony.

Part of a trend

The privilege from arrest is one that exists in many states, and Minnesota is not the only state re-examining its worth.

Arizona might overhaul its own legislative immunity laws in the wake of a legislator's attempt last year to avoid arrest after a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend on the side of the freeway. Police officers later testified that the lawmaker demanded they uncuff him, citing his legislative immunity.

In Idaho, a lawmaker is contending the IRS cannot collect $550,000 in back taxes from him because they sent the delinquency notice to him while the Legislature was in session -- a violation of his legislative immunity. The U.S. Justice Department is asking a federal judge to throw out that argument.

Georgia considered repealing immunity several years ago after a lawmaker there tried to use it to avoid prosecution in a drunken-driving case, but the law still stands.

Minnesota legislators have, from time to time, been arrested for all manner of infractions over the years, from a shoplifting incident in the 1990s to the occasional drunken-driving arrest after a late-night legislative session. Neither the bill sponsors or veterans of the Capitol recall anyone every attempting to avoid arrest or prosecution by citing legislative immunity, though there have been long-standing jokes around the Capitol about legislators' equivalent of "get-out-of-jail-free" cards.

The immunity, legal experts say, is a throwback in English history.

Intended to thwart the king

"The doctrine of legislative immunity had [its] origins in the struggles between the English Crown and Parliament that began more than 600 years ago," former Minnesota Senate Counsel Peter Wattson wrote in a treatise on immunity. English history is rife with cases of monarchs tossing opposing lawmakers in the clink for legislative acts, such as the death sentence King Richard II passed on Thomas Haxey, a member of Parliament, after Haxey introduced a bill to reduce expenditures for the royal household.

With that in mind, when national and state leaders wrote their constitutions, they made clear that having lawmakers arrested or jailed for proposing or passing laws was unacceptable.

But, college student Nate Thienes told a House panel, "times have changed since the early 1800s."

Avoiding immediate arrest

As it stands, legislative immunity does not specifically allow lawmakers to avoid criminal charges for anything. Instead, it could be interpreted as allowing lawmakers to avoid immediate arrest on drunken- driving charges if the charges are not felonious, as has happened in other states.

"To our knowledge, state troopers have never encountered a situation where [legislative immunity] was invoked," said Bruce Gordon, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

In Minnesota, legislative immunity has been used on occasion to quash subpoenas and has been invoked in various civil lawsuits. While still a U.S. senator, Gov. Mark Dayton once asked a court to dismiss an employment lawsuit from a former congressional employee on the grounds that his congressional immunity protected him. The ex-employee claimed Dayton wrongly fired him because he had a heart condition. Courts rejected Dayton's immunity argument, and Dayton settled the suit.

But lawmakers could recall no other incidents.

"I think we all would have heard about it," Kriesel said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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  • Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove

  • WHAT IS LEGISLATIVE IMMUNITY?

    Article 4, section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution:

    PRIVILEGE FROM ARREST. The members of each house in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest during the session of their respective houses and in going to or returning from the same. For any speech or debate in either house they shall not be questioned in any other place.

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