ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has advised the Legislature to forge ahead with a bill making clear that lawmakers can't avoid arrest for drunken driving or other crimes during a legislative session, but a key senator said Thursday he still thinks the measure is unnecessary.
Swanson's nonbinding opinion issued Tuesday in a letter addresses a hot-button bill that would explicitly revoke "privilege from arrest" for criminal activity while lawmakers are in session. It's a clause in the Constitution meant to keep lawmakers for being detained for all but treason, felony crimes or breach of the peace. How far the privilege extends is a point of controversy.
Some lawmakers are pushing legislation to remove any doubt that criminal acts make lawmakers subject to arrest. A bill doing that has overwhelmingly passed the House. It hasn't progressed in the Senate.
"Under the circumstances, I believe that it would be helpful and beneficial for the Minnesota Legislature to give additional direction to legislative members, the public, law enforcement and the courts by enacting legislation to clarify that state legislators have no immunity from arrest for criminal activity, including the crime of driving while intoxicated," Swanson's letter concludes.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he is not convinced that a new law is required to resolve what he sees as a misunderstanding of current law. He said the Constitution doesn't give legislators a pass when they break the law. Legislators are issued wallet-sized cards highlighting their privilege, and Latz said he would prefer to do away with the cards and engage in a robust education effort rather than pass a new law.
"Most importantly, we need to make it clear to all new and veteran state legislators that they have absolutely no immunity from arrest for drunk driving," Latz said in a written statement.
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Thursday he believes Swanson's opinion makes it clear that lawmakers need to resolve the issue. Winkler said the bill is needed because "legislators don't understand (the constitutional clause), the public doesn't understand it and the law in Minnesota is unclear."
Eliminating the language has become a project for some political science students at Concordia University. The co-chairs of the student group called on the state Senate Thursday to pass the bill.
"We have gone door to door at the Minnesota Senate and have the votes to pass this bill. The time is now and we ask the Minnesota Senate to act," the students' statement read.