You might think subtly tweaking the way DWI is defined in order to strip legislators of their immunity from drunk driving arrests would be a no-brainer for Minnesota lawmakers. You'd be wrong.
THE BACKSTORY: Push renewed to strip legislators of DWI immunity
During the first hearing about a bill to that effect last week, two DFL lawmakers voted against it -- Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, and Rep. Michael Nelson, D-Brooklyn Park.
Their nay votes weren't enough to derail the bill, which passed through the Government Operations Committee on an 11-2 vote. But the arguments made during the hearing by Hansen embody a line of thinking the Concordia University students pushing the measure will have to address during future hearings, starting this Thursday with the House Public Safety Committee.
Hansen asked students, "Is there any evidence of a legislator using the immunity card for any arrest?" Students couldn't cite specific examples. That task, of course, is complicated by the fact that there'd be no public record of a legislator whipping out their "get out of jail free" card to escape arrest.
Referring to Hansen's question, Jayne Jones, the Concordia professor helping students with their effort, told us he's "asking the impossible."
She said she's received at least two unconfirmed reports of Minnesota legislators using the state constitution's immunity clause to escape DWI arrest since 2012, and her students have been calling law enforcement officials throughout the state in hopes of gathering additional evidence.
After a student replied to Hansen's question by saying she'd "heard stories" about legislators using their immunity card, he replied, "I think everything you just said is hearsay."
"You haven't provided any evidence that anyone has used the card," Hansen continued. "I think that any member who attempted to use it would probably be forfeiting their office in shame."
Hansen also alluded to a constitutional argument in favor of preserving legislators' immunity.
"I am more of a constitutionalist... Our forefathers put this in the constitution for a reason," he said. "I think when we deal with fundamental rights to define what a 'breach of the peace' is, if we go back 225 years or if we look around the world at other legislative bodies, what happens [with] any change based on conjecture or hearsay rather than actual evidence?"
"I do not condone drunk driving but I don't think there's the evidence that's there, so that's my rationale," Hansen concluded.
It should be mentioned the bill in question doesn't change the state constitution, but instead reclassifies DWI as a "breach of the peace" and thereby strips legislators of their immunity from that type of arrest while the legislature is in session.