Minnesota legislators don’t have immunity from drunk driving arrests? Oh, then. Never mind

For most of this year, a spirited group of Concordia University students has been learning more about the legislative process by championing a bill they said would strip lawmakers of immunity if they’re arrested for drunk driving during the session. No doubt it’s been a great learning experience but yesterday’s lesson came from attorney general Lori Swanson who ruled that the present law provides no such immunity: Know thy law before changing it.

That goes for the kids who researched it, the legislators who — so far — have passed the proposed new law, and certainly we in the media who’ve reported on the students’ effort.

“It prevents any legislator from having an excuse for drinking and driving,” Rep. Zachary Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud, a bill co-sponsor said earlier this month.

Not quite, according to a new interpretation.

In a Star Tribune op-ed today, Sen. Ron Latz and Sen. Scott Newman said any legislator who drives drunk can be arrested.

The U.S. Supreme Court (on at least two occasions going back over 100 years), three state supreme courts and at least 15 state attorneys general have stated that the so-called “privilege from arrest” provisions in the U.S. Constitution and many state constitutions apply only to civil, not criminal, arrests. Civil arrests were a common practice 200 hundred years ago and were occasionally used by kings and executive branch leaders to block legislators from getting to a vote or to arrest them for something said during their duties as an elected official. A contemporary example of a civil arrest would be for contempt of court.

Our own attorney general agrees that the privilege from arrest does not apply to criminal conduct. In a recent opinion, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson concludes: “If the Minnesota appellate courts were presented with the issue, it is highly likely they would adopt the majority view set forth in modern cases and find no legislative privilege from arrest for DWIs or other criminal activity under the Minnesota Constitution.”

Attorney General Swanson said yesterday the Legislature should go ahead and pass the bill to eliminate any confusion. But it’s not because the lawmakers have immunity, it’s because many of them, apparently, — and certainly many of the rest of us — have been told they have the immunity.

There’s always the “do you know who I am?” defense.