Two years ago, a group of Concordia University students led by political science professor Jayne Jones came up just short in their push to go the legislature to approve a student-drafted bill that would strip legislators of their immunity from DWI arrests during session. Jones and company hope to go all the way this year.
"What happened two years ago was [legislators] were so afraid there'd be stories told on the floor that could be used against them in elections," Jones told us. "We were so close and we're not going to give up."
Article IV, Section 10 of the state constitution says, "Members of each house in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest during the session of their respective houses and in going to or returning from the same."
With regard to DWI, that currently means legislators are "privileged from arrest." But the bill pushed by Jones's Concordia students -- with help from Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, and Sen. Kathy Sheran, D-Mankato -- would change that by reclassifying drunk driving as a "breach of the peace."
The bill was approved in an 11-2 vote at the conclusion of its first committee hearing last week. Two nay votes were cast by Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, and the chair of the Government Operations Committee, Rep. Michael Nelson, D-Brooklyn Park.
We left voicemails and emails with both Hansen and Nelson seeking comment on the rationale for their votes but hadn't heard back as this is published.
Jones said she came up with the idea of having her students draft the bill after a chance encounter with a drunk-driving legislator at Costello's three years ago.
"I was playing cribbage with my now-husband, and a legislator was kitty-corner from us drunk as a skunk with his secretary," Jones explained. "We were talking politics, and he said something like, 'Unlike the rest of you, I can drive home drunk legally.' And his secretary was like, 'Yes, he can. It's in the constitution.'"
"He literally couldn't walk, then he got in his truck and drove away," she continued. (Jones wouldn't name the legislator, but said he's no longer in office.) "I thought to myself, you just gave me my next syllabus."
"It's a law from the 1800s," Jones said. "People are drinking just as much beer January through May as they are June through December when session isn't going on, so it's just bogus."