Others’ Opinion: Lawmakers don’t need DWI immunity

Published 9:42 am Thursday, April 3, 2014

Many Minnesota residents may have been perplexed when they learned that state lawmakers have immunity from certain arrests while they are in session.

The state Constitution gives lawmakers immunity from arrest during session in all cases except for felonies, treason and breach of the peace.

What many call a “get out of jail free” card might seem outrageous to many, but the exemption is not without merit. The provision is intended to prevent lawmakers from being arrested on trumped-up charges in order to keep them from attending key votes.

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That kind of mischief might seem impossible in today’s society. But don’t forget what happened in neighboring Wisconsin in 2011. Democrat lawmakers fled the state in an effort to prevent legislators from reaching a quorum and passing a bill put forth by Gov. Scott Walker, which would cripple the collective bargaining rights of public unions. Walker, a Republican, threatened to send out state troopers and the National Guard to track the lawmakers down.

While that drama eventually worked itself out, it shows that nothing is impossible when it comes to tense political debates, particularly in this time of divisive politics.

That being said, one aspect of the immunity — potential freedom for lawmakers from being arrested for drunk driving during the session — should be done away with.

Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato has sponsored a bill that would change the definition of “breach of the peace,” to include drunk driving.

But the common-sense proposal had a tough time in the Senate judiciary panel, where Sheran couldn’t rally others to support it.

Some lawmakers opposed it — sidestepping the core question of whether lawmakers should have the right to get away with drunk driving — by saying no one has proven the provision has been misused by lawmakers.

Another opponent said he didn’t think police would let a lawmaker off if they did stop them for drunk driving during the session. Well, maybe not, but then why leave the protection for lawmakers in the law?

The setback in the Senate dims hopes for Sheran’s bill this session, even though House Speaker Paul Thissen has supported the idea in his chamber.

If there’s no way to move the bill this year, it should be brought back in the next session.

Lawmakers opposing the change do nothing but further undermine the public’s confidence in them.

—Mankato Free Press