OUR OPINION: Rescind lawmakers’ ‘free pass’ on DUI rules
When they began their project to rescind Minnesota lawmakers’ immunity to drunk driving arrests, poli sci students at Concordia University in St. Paul thought they’d be learning how the Legislature works.
As it turns out, they’re learning how the place REALLY works — because rather than letting the proposal sail through, senators have tabled it.
That means it’s time for those lawmakers to start feeling pressure from constituents.
Because then they’ll remember how their chamber REALLY REALLY works, and pass the bill in response to popular demand.
Deep in the Minnesota Constitution, in language that dates back to 1857, is this provision:
“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.”
Lawmakers even get a card that’s signed by the secretary of state and spells out the privileges for all to see — including, presumably, State Patrol officers reading the words by flashlight while standing by the side of a car.
In truth, the law serves an honorable purpose. The U.S. Constitution and other state constitutions offer similar protections, the idea being to prevent a president or governor from arresting on pretext a political foe.
But drunk-driving evidence would be hard for a crooked executive to fake. Couple that with the fact that actual drunk driving poses a serious threat to the public, and you’ve got the Concordia proposal to include drunk driving in Minnesota’s definition of “breach of the peace.”
You’ve also got the motion by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, to table the bill.
“Newman said he agreed with the spirit of the measure, and said no legislator should be above the law,” the Star Tribune reported.
“But ‘as we’ve heard from the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you fail an impaired driving test you will be arrested,’ Newman said in a statement on March 28.
“‘I have faith in our law enforcement to handle these situations properly. If there is evidence of abuse of power that would be curbed by passing this bill, I will gladly move to reconsider.’”
But at least one retired sheriff’s deputy — Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge — testified in favor of the bill at a hearing in the House. Police officers themselves can be charged if they violate a lawmakers’ privilege, so most officers shy away from citing suspect senators or representatives, Johnson said.
In any event, the perfect rationale for making sure drunk driving isn’t privileged was offered in a comment on the Star Tribune story:
“This is the ‘un’-session to do away with needless laws,” the reader wrote.
“If the drunk-driving privilege has never been used, it seems ripe for repealing. If it indeed has been used, it seems ripe for repealing.”
Interns at the Capitol tell stories of tipsy lawmakers taking the wheel while insisting they have immunity. This suggests that at the very least, there’s confusion about the protection.
Lawmakers should act on the proposal to pull drunk driving out from under the constitution’s shield.
Because in doing so, the Legislature also would end the confusion and remove any doubt.