House revives effort to scrap lawmaker immunity

Published 10:51 am Thursday, March 19, 2015

ST. PAUL — Their get-out-of-jail-free cards are a thing of the past, but Minnesota House lawmakers want to make it crystal clear: State legislators can’t avoid arrest during session.

Tony Cornish

Tony Cornish

Lawmakers’ supposed immunity from arrests for drunken driving and other crimes has been a touchy issue for years, even though the cards are no longer handed out. A House committee passed a bill Wednesday that would clarify lawmakers can be arrested, hoping to put to rest any confusion over a constitutional relic from frontier days meant to protect legislators from political tricks like being arrested on the way to an important vote.

“I think it stinks just to have this language. It’s embarrassing,” said Rep. Tony Cornish, a Vernon Center Republican.

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But much like last year, the proposal could hit a snag in the Senate where a top Democrat calls the whole issue “much ado about nothing” and says he won’t take up the bill.

Sen. Ron Latz said there’s nothing in the state’s constitution that protects lawmakers from being arrested for drunken driving or other crimes, and the courts have backed that up. And he’s heard of no lawmakers trying to use their cards in modern history.

“I doubt you could find any legislator who thinks that provision provides them with any kind of immunity from arrest or prosecution,” said Latz, a Democrat from St. Louis Park. He called it “a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Ryan Winkler

Ryan Winkler

Former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie stopped issuing cards that appeared to give lawmakers the special protections last year, and

his successor, Steve Simon, followed suit.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is pushing the bill in the House. He said the Legislature needs to clarify the matter for the public and law enforcement. The committee unanimously agreed, sending the bill onto the full House floor.

As if to make Latz’s point in the House public safety committee Wednesday, Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, pulled out his old card and read off the expiration date. It expired more than two months ago.

“There really aren’t people out there with cards,” Dehn said.

Raymond Dehn

Raymond Dehn