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House votes to remove arrest immunity from lawmakers

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For a long time, Minnesota lawmakers have been immune from being arrested for DWI during the legislative session. That is one big step closer to changing.

The House easily passed a measure Wednesday preventing such immunity. And not just for DWI, but for all misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and felonies, the Session Daily writes.

“No legislator should have immunity from driving while intoxicated and this bill makes that fact crystal clear in our laws,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, according to Northland's News Center.

The bill was still awaiting action in the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee Wednesday, Session Daily says. But Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, introduced a motion to bring it to the floor directly, which passed easily.

The measure was amended by its author, Winkler, to include all crimes, not just drunk driving, then approved by the House 115-13. Rep. Carly Melin took issue with some of the media reports which emphasized the DWI aspect of the bill.

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, was one of the 13 lawmakers to vote against it. He called it "sloppy," the Session Daily says, adding, “We’ve suspended the rules to do 100 percent pure politics on this bill.” Timothy Blotz of FOX 9 tweeted the following from Rep. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Little Canada:

The push for a change first came from the Concordia University St. Paul Student Legislative Action Team, and was recently backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Red Lake Nation News reports.

It now goes to the Senate; that chamber's version of the bill is currently in the Judiciary Committee.

Whether the Senate ever deals with the DWI immunity bill is in doubt however, KARE 11 reported. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, did not move it out of committee, blocking it from getting to the floor for a full vote, the station reported. Latz, according to KARE 11, said he tabled the proposal because the immunity only applied if a lawmaker was arrested in a "civil matter" simply to prevent them from voting on an important bill.

That's actually where the immunity provision stems from in the first place, the St. Cloud Times says. It's been in the Minnesota Constitution since 1857, and says state representatives and senators can not be arrested during the legislative session except in cases of "treason, felony, and breach of the peace." According to the paper it dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when lawmakers would be arrested by political opponents so they couldn't vote on a bill.

After the House's approval, Latz issued a statement saying immunity for lawmakers is a "public misperception."

“Legislators can and should be arrested if they drive drunk," he said. "This is current law, and it is rightly enforced by the authorities."

He says a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 1908 decided the immunity law only applies to civil cases of arrest and not criminal conduct – "Thus, the proposed bill’s only value is to correct a misperception, largely created by its own advocates and recent media reports. That is not a sufficient justification for passing laws."

Lawmakers currently get a card outlining their arrest immunity privileges. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger with the Star Tribune snapped a photo of one for Twitter.

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