MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Wednesday he will no longer issue cards that appeared to give lawmakers immunity from being arrested for drunken driving or other crimes during a legislative session, saying his office isn’t bound by statute to distribute them.
The decision doesn’t change state law - the provision in the Minnesota Constitution that sparked debate over lawmaker immunity still stands. But Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Ritchie’s decision is an important first step in trying to clarify the issue and do away with misperceptions.
“Legislators, law enforcement and the public should not be confused into thinking that anyone, especially elected officials, are above the law in Minnesota,” said Winkler, sponsor of a House bill that sought to make it clear that lawmakers are not immune from arrest.
At issue is a constitutional provision that dates back to frontier days - meant to avert political dirty tricks and protect legislators from being arrested to prevent them from voting on important measures. Winkler’s measure passed the House, but the issue stalled in the Senate.
Opponents have said the measure was unnecessary, and the supposed get-out-of-jail-free cards lawmakers receive each time they are sworn in don’t prevent arrest. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday, but he had said during the session that the measure wasn’t needed, and he would have preferred to eliminate the cards and educate lawmakers about the issue.
The U.S. Constitution and 44 other state constitutions have arrest immunity language. Federal and state courts have given varying interpretations of how far the protection extends, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Winkler said the issue hasn’t been clarified in Minnesota, and creates confusion for law enforcement, lawmakers and the public. The issue was first brought up by students at Concordia University in St. Paul.
Winkler said he intends to reintroduce his measure next session.
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