Panel agrees: No DWI immunity for Minnesota lawmakers

At the urging of college students, a Senate panel approved a clarification to confirm that lawmakers can be arrested for driving drunk.

Approving a measure that makes clear legislators have no immunity from drunken driving charges, some lawmakers on Thursday speculated whether they should go further and jettison legislative immunity entirely.

"Could anyone tell me how we could abolish ... this whole idea?" asked Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a retired county sheriff from Alexandria. "I would like to see us continue in the direction that we are going."

The Legislature is not planning on getting rid of legislative immunity -- which protects lawmakers from arrest, with just a few exceptions, during legislative sessions -- any time soon. That would take a full-scale repeal of a constitutional provision.

But it is inching closer to snatching away any temptation Minnesota lawmakers may have to claim immunity from drunken driving arrests. Inspired by outraged Concordia University students, a proposal speeding through the Legislature would include drunken driving among the rare exceptions to "privilege from arrest."

Minnesota is not alone in taking another look at the longstanding freedom from arrest permitted lawmakers. In other states, the renewed interest came after lawmakers attempted to use their immunity to skate away from law enforcement on infractions ranging from domestic abuse to drunken driving.

Locally, the spark came from Concordia Prof. Jayne Jones and a student, both of whom had heard tales of lawmakers bragging about their "Get of Jail Free" cards.

"This is a big deal to us," student Taylor Gittens told senators at Thursday's committee hearing.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, made clear that even without changes, lawmakers are not free to commit crimes without consequence. The immunity provision means they cannot be arrested and therefore stopped from voting.

"If I were speeding and I did get stopped, the officers couldn't keep me from getting back in the car and getting to the Capitol, but they could subsequently later mail me a speeding ticket," Ortman said.

But Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, said that if a lawmaker were suspected of driving drunk, not arrested, and then allowed to vote, timing might impede a conviction.

"For every hour they are here, their blood alcohol drops," said Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief.

Harrington said for that reason, he supported the measure. "Those folks that make the laws certainly should not be above it," he said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb

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