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Students seek end to Minnesota legislature drunk-driving immunity

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Legislators who drink and drive should face the same consequences as everyone else, a group of college students argues.

In Minnesota, legislators get what some deem a "get out of jail free" card protecting them from arrest for certain crimes. Some students from Concordia University in St. Paul were not happy when they discovered that legislative immunity could shield lawmakers from drunken driving arrests.

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A House committee passed the students' proposal Thursday to allow legislators to be arrested for drunken driving, sending it to a full House vote. The experience has taught the students a lot about the legislative process.

"It's nice to have that hands-on approach," said Ariel Buczak, a student from Alexandria.

It is unclear if legislators have used their protection to avoid drunken-driving arrests.

"To our knowledge, state troopers have never encountered a situation where this provision was invoked," said Bruce Gordon, Public Safety Department spokesman.

The students said they do not want anyone to have the opportunity to do so in the future.

"It eliminates the temptation," Professor Jayne Jones said.

As part of a political science class, the students teamed up with Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, who helped them through the process.

"He was like their coach, telling the players how to do it," Jones said.

The Concordia students traveled to the Capitol weekly to work on their "No Boozin' and Cruzin' in Minnesota" bill. They hashed out language, emailed and went door-to-door talking with lawmakers.

The goal of immunity when it was implemented was to keep lawmakers from being wrongfully arrested simply so they would miss an important vote or be unable to govern, the students said.

But as legislators continue to strengthen penalties and tighten laws for drunken driving, they should be subject to the consequences as well, the students argued.

"They're making that choice (to drink and drive), and I think it is important that they be held just like any other citizen in the state," Kriesel said.

The students said impaired driving affects thousands across the state. There were 2,485 people who suffered injuries in alcohol-related car crashes and nearly 30,000 DWIs issued in 2010, according to the Public Safety Department.

Even though the immunity provision is part of the state Constitution, the group worked to find a way to avoid a constitutional amendment and instead clarified language in state law, student Taylor Gittens said. There already is a list of offenses that still could get lawmakers arrested, and this bill would add impaired driving to that list.

While some legislators in the House committee had questions about the bill, it passed easily. Many commended the students for their involvement in the process and encouraged them to tackle other issues.

Student Coy Smith said he has learned how "drawn out" the process can be, but the students were happy with how quickly their bill is moving along. They also are working on getting a Senate version through.

The class did not know if the bill would pass, but "we were hoping so," Buczak said.

This is the third bill Concordia University students have presented at the Legislature, Jones said. The previous two, dealing with child abuse, were approved.

Danielle Nordine reports for Forum Communications Co.

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