Push renewed to clarify DWI immunity law for legislators

State lawmakers no longer have "get out of jail free" cards, but that's not stopping some House members from trying to modify state law to make it crystal clear that they're not immune from arrest if they commit a crime.

Rep. Ryan Winkler (D-Golden Valley), referring to a passage of the state constitution that privileges members from arrest during session, said, "It is commonly understood in the legal community that this constitutional provision doesn't have much meaning, but what we're trying to do is make sure in state law that it's clear to everybody that state legislators have no special privileges."

At a legislative hearing today, Winkler and three Concordia University students argued on behalf of a bill that would clarify the constitution with this language: "A crime includes a felony, gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor constitutes a breach of the peace."

And those would all be arrestable offenses -- including drunk driving. (A similar bill stalled out in the Senate last session.)

One of the Concordia students, Chris Ploch, said, "95 percent of legislators agree with us. All of the public agrees with us. To me, it's a common-sense bill."

What brought the bill to public attention in the past were the so-called "get out of jail free" cards handed out by previous secretaries of state. Those cards quoted the aforementioned constitutional language, and the last ones issued were good until January of this year.

Though the cards are no longer valid, the Concordia students say changing the law is about integrity.

"It allows our representatives and senators from this state to step up and say, 'We stand up with the citizens of Minnesota,'" one of those students, Adam Woods, said. "'We don't have any privilege that they don't have and we are as subject to the same laws that you are.' And it gives them the chance to really take this outdated law off of the books and stand as one of us."

Since last year's debate, Attorney General Lori Swanson has weighed in. In an opinion, she says she believes case law is clear in this issue, but says the legislature should clarify things with a law like the one now under consideration.

But Sen. Ron Latz, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, believes case law is already clear and isn't likely to give Winkler's bill a hearing.