A Minnesota House panel signed off on clarifying that a long-standing provision that would give lawmakers immunity from arrest during the legislative session is not the equivalent of a “Get out of jail free” card.
For the second year in a row, lawmakers are considering rewording the provision, which 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 last year, but the Senate has did not address the issue, and is unlikely to do so again this year.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee approved the bill, sending it to the House floor. But even if it passes, its sponsor, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, acknowledged that Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was reluctant to take up a measure he viewed as redundant. Winkler said his bill’s likely only shot at landing on the Senate floor is in the form of an amendment to another bill.
“I think the issue is when it comes up for a vote, it’s challenging for legislators to vote against this for pretty obvious reasons,” Winkler said. “So the path is to get some kind of vote in the Senate so they have a choice between moving this forward and being on public record against this.”
Latz confirmed Wednesday that he has no intention of taking up the bill, and said the term “legislative immunity” is a misnomer.
“There is no legislative immunity for criminal conduct under current law, thus there is no legal or statutory problem to solve,” he said. “There is also no confusion by anyone: cops know, prosecutors know, legislators know there is no immunity.”
Latz pointed out Former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie stopped printing the cards last summer, and his successor, Steve Simon, also will no longer print the cards. The current cards expired in January.
“There are no actual incidents in modern times of anyone in Minnesota trying to use this clause to get out of anything,” Latz said. “Thus, there is no actual problem to solve. There is nothing of substance for the Legislature to do here.”
Last year, Latz, asked Attorney General Lori Swanson to clarify what the law means. Swanson replied that as it applies to modern cases, would not get legislators out of an arrest for DWI or any other crime. However, she said that clarifying the statute would be “helpful and beneficial.”
Latz was doubtful, writing last year that “I’m not convinced putting something in law twice will actually resolve any misunderstanding of current law,”
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.
The provision was authored to prevent the detention of lawmakers in order to keep them from voting. Winkler’s bill would direct police who arrest lawmakers for drunken driving to bring them to their respective bodies without delay if their presence is necessary.
Before the Public Safety Committee unanimously approved the bill, Public Safety Chair Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said that regardless of whether anyone is arrested, it’s important to show the public that lawmakers should be held accountable.
“I think it stinks just to have this language, it’s embarrassing and we should get rid of it,” He said.
“Hopefully,” Cornish added, “They have the courage in the Senate to take this up.”
Photo: Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and Concordia College students present the bill to the House Public Safety Committee.