Saved by legislative immunity

The Minnesota Legislature is slowly moving a bill stripping them of their immunity if arrested, although the sense is it’s only because of the publicity the bill has generated.

It’s been impossible to find out how often the so-called “get out of jail” card is being used, although the tepid reaction to the proposed legislation suggests it gets played fairly often. It passed the House late Wednesday but it doesn’t appear to have any friends in the Senate.

Today, the Winona Daily News tells us about a legislator whose attorney tried to claim immunity. Frank Theis, a ’60s-era legislator, was stopped for speeding and he smelled of alcohol. He wasn’t allowed to continue driving, but he wasn’t arrested either because of his immunity, which is embodied in the state constitution.

Charges were filed against the Winona DFLer two months later, the paper says:

The case stretched into the summer of 1970 after Theis initially requested a jury, then months later waived that right. During the proceedings Theis recanted — a bit, anyway — and told the judge he had had one drink that night, though he continued to claim he wasn’t drunk when he got behind the wheel of his car.

It didn’t matter how many drinks Theis might or might not have had, his lawyer argued — none of what Theis said or did that night should be admissible in court because of Theis’ claimed immunity.

The attorney, Gerald Singler, was working from verbiage in the state constitution, which read in part, “Members of each house shall in all cases, except … breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during the session of their respective houses.”

In July 1970, the judge issued his ruling: Theis was guilty of careless driving but not of drinking and driving. It isn’t clear why he was cleared of the drunken driving charge, though the judge ruled that both offenses didn’t qualify for the test of immunity.

The Minnesota Constitution “was never intended as a sanctuary for legislative members who have committed a public offense,” said municipal judge Donald S. Burris in his ruling.

Had Theis been found guilty, an appeal might have clarified that contention.