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Capitol Chatter: Swanson urges clarifying get-out-of-jail-free provision

ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislators have carried what popularly is known as get-out-of-jail-free cards since the 1980s, with the understanding that showing the card would prevent them from being arrested for crimes when the Legislature is in session.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson and Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, say the card, based on a Minnesota Constitution provision, does not give lawmakers that protection. But Swanson said in a letter to Latz that she still favors a law clarifying that legislators can be arrested on criminal charges.

“Under the circumstances, I believe that it would be helpful and beneficial for the Minnesota Legislature to give additional direction to legislative members, the public, law enforcement and the courts by enacting legislation to clarify that state legislators have no immunity from arrest for criminal activity, including the crime of driving while intoxicated,” she wrote.

A group of Concordia University St. Paul students have fought for such a law, which is stalled in a Senate committee.

Happy with Swanson’s letter, they issued a statement: “We urge the Minnesota Senate to proceed swiftly with passage of this important legislation that will ensure all Minnesotans, elected and non-elected to be treated equally. We have gone door to door at the Minnesota Senate and have the votes to pass this bill.”

Latz pointed to Swanson’s statements that existing law does not give lawmakers a free pass.

“I join Attorney General Swanson, together with the U.S. Supreme Court, multiple state supreme courts and state attorneys general, in concurring that the so-called privilege from arrest provision included in the U.S. Constitution and our own Minnesota Constitution applies only to civil arrest and does not apply to any criminal act, including driving while intoxicated,” he said. “Minnesota legislators can and should be —and have been —arrested for driving drunk.”

Latz said he is not convinced that “putting something in law twice will actually resolve any misunderstanding of current law.”

Instead, he suggested considering getting rid of the wallet card issued by the secretary of state’s office. If the card must remain, he added, something should be done to make the situation clear that lawmakers may be arrested for crimes.

“We should train our police officers and sheriff’s deputies on the fact that all drunk drivers —no matter who they are —should be duly arrested,” Latz said. “And, most importantly, we need to make it clear to all new and veteran state legislators that they have absolutely no immunity from arrest for drunk driving.”

Lawmakers consider privacy

Breaches in Minnesotans’ driver’s license privacy are being addressed in a Minnesota House-Senate conference committee.

Negotiators meet Monday to work out differences between two versions of a bill written to make it harder for government employees to look up driver’s license information if they have no need for it.

House bill author Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, brought up the bill after it was revealed last year that a Department of Natural Resources employee, since fired, accessed thousands of license files. He has been sentenced for breaking state privacy law.

Other state and local employees also have been accused of similar actions, and recently a Metropolitan Transit employee allegedly looked at 7,000 records.

“It’s pretty clear to me that we don’t have some groups taking this seriously,” Holberg said.

The bill would require procedures to ensure that private data is accessed only by those who need the information

Form letters fall short

Legislators prefer heartfelt letters, not form letters.

Organizations often provide form letters that supporters can send to lawmakers on topics of concern to the organizations. That apparently happened in the debate to regulate payday lenders.

Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia, said he received some blue forms from people supporting payday lending, opposing new restrictions, but when he called to ask why they felt that way, the letter signers did not recall writing to him. The form apparently was part of the process of applying for a payday loan, he said.

The form letters did not convince him; he voted for more restrictions.

Dahlberg questions McFadden

U.S. Senate candidate Chris Dahlberg has leveled charges against the race’s Republican fundraising frontrunner, Mike McFadden, for refusing to answer questions about where he stands on issues.

The St. Louis County commissioner’s allegations are similar to comments Democrats often make.

“As I’ve listened to comments by Mike McFadden during this campaign, I’ve been stunned by his disregard for the intelligence of the people in our state,” Dahlberg said. “He has consistently been unwilling — or unable — to answer even the simplest questions about where he stands on issues.”

McFadden’s campaign did not directly respond, instead saying it hears from Republicans upset about people in the party beating up on each other.

Democrats have harshly criticized McFadden for skipping debates and otherwise not detailing his stands on issues. He is the prime Democratic target since he has a huge financial lead in the race to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken in November.

Spring warning: no signs

It is spring, at least in most of Minnesota, so it is time for transportation officials to issue their annual warning that unauthorized signs are illegal along state highways.

“As the weather warms, we usually see a significant increase in advertising signs and items for sale placed illegally along state roadways,” Mark Renn of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said.

Placing signs or other objects in highway rights of way can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.