A state provision that gave Minnesota lawmakers immunity from arrest during legislative sessions has been reversed.
The Minnesota House voted to repeal the clause, otherwise known as the “immunity card,” something that made it unclear as to whether or not lawmakers could be arrested on the suspicion of drunk driving while the state house or senate were in order. With broad support, the final vote was 115 to 13.
Despite what was eventually bipartisan support, some lawmakers had maintained that the new law wasn’t needed. For example, Senator Ron Latz insisted that the previous law already allowed legislators to be arrested during sessions, emphasizing that the issue was a “misconception.” “Legislators can and should be arrested if they drive drunk. This is current law, and it is rightly enforced by the authorities,” stated Latz via a press release.
Latz also cited two previously decided court cases. “The U.S. Supreme Court decided this over 100 years ago, in US v. Williamson (1908), cited with approval in Gravel v. US (1972), stating unequivocally that the so-called “privilege from arrest” language in the US Constitution, mirrored in the Minnesota Constitution, applies only in cases of civil arrest and not to criminal conduct.”
A report from Mankato Free Press in March, however, noted that the previous law provided lawmakers immunity from arrest with exceptions being made for just three categories: breach of the peace, felonies and treason.
SCTimes on April 3rd detailed a senate counsel paper from 2010 which noted that the immunity card’s origin actually dated back to 16th and 17th century England, a time in which politicians would have their opponents arrested in order to win votes in the British Parliament.
The push to overturn the provision initially arose with support from students at Concordia University, located in St. Paul. It was highlighted during a project from Professor Jayne Jones’ political science course, according to the Washington Post.
In a press release, sponsor Representative Ryan Winkler praised the students. “This bill was proposed by students as part of a project that encourages young people to get involved in the law making process. It has broad bipartisan support in the Legislature and I will continue to push it forward this session. Not only because these students have worked hard to ensure that it passes, but also because it addresses an outdated and unnecessary provision in our states constitution. No elected official is above the law.”
A Clear Message
No instances of a lawmaker using the immunity card to avoid a drunk driving arrest have ever been detailed. That, however, most certainly doesn’t mean lawmakers haven’t gotten away with some things in the past. Whether it was just a misconception or not, the new bill now makes it clear: Lawmakers aren’t exempt from the same laws that apply to everyday Minnesota citizens.