Our View: Surprise! Some legislators don’t want to repeal their immunity

January 20, 2019

When they’re campaigning, politicians like to pretend they’re just like the rest of us. But the state’s legislative immunity allowances — and the reaction by some legislators after Gov. Doug Ducey called for changes — proves that’s not quite right.

The state constitution says lawmakers cannot be arrested during the legislative session, or in the 15 days leading up to the session, unless they’re charged with treason, a felony, or a “breach of the peace.”

Earlier this week, Ducey used his State of the State speech to call for the end of immunity provisions.

“Let’s show the people of Arizona that their elected leaders will live under the same laws as every man and woman in this state,” he said.

Ducey’s right. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

That’s why it’s interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that legislators such as House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, Sen. Lela Alson and Rep. Vince Leach, would resist Ducey’s proposal. They say there are often legitimate reasons that lawmakers need protection from being arrested in certain circumstances.

Basically, they argue that the original intent of legislative immunity protection was to keep police officers and sheriff’s deputies from detaining one or two lawmakers whose votes were needed.

That whole argument, however, hangs on the premise that our elected leaders are doing things that would give officers a reason to detain them in the first place. Legislators who aren’t behaving badly should have nothing to fear.

The whole issue got a lot of attention thanks to former Rep. Paul Mosley, who was pulled over last year for driving 97 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone near Parker. He was shown in a widely distributed video claiming legislative immunity to avoid getting a speeding ticket.

Opponents of Ducey’s proposal to eliminate the protections say there’s no need for change because voters can keep their elected leaders accountable. Indeed, Mosley lost his election in the months that followed the revelation of his traffic stop.

But that’s certainly not always how it works. Past immunity claims have included:

• Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, who was stopped for drunk driving in December 2018; he gave police his House ID card rather than his driver’s license. While there is no indication that Cook claimed he could not be arrested, he later apologized. Cook also lost a chairmanship as a result.

• Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, who in 2012 claimed legislative immunity to avoid facing charges of domestic violence.

• Sen. Scott Bundgaard, R-Glendale, who in 2011 was seen by police fighting physically with his girlfriend alongside a Phoenix freeway. When police sought to arrest both, he claimed legislative immunity from arrest, allowing him to avoid jail while his companion was locked up for 14 hours.

• Former Gov. Jan Brewer, when she was a state lawmaker, escaped being charged with drunk driving in 1988 after the vehicle she was driving rear-ended a van on the freeway. Police reports state she failed the field sobriety test, but was not given a breath test after a DPS officer concluded she was entitled to immunity.

• State Rep. Phil Hubbard, D-Tucson, who in 1995 argued he was entitled not to be ticketed for driving 14 mph over the speed limit on Interstate 10 because he was going to a legislative hearing.

• Former Rep. Bill English, R-Sierra Vista, who in 1987 was arrested on a charge of DUI. English initially claimed immunity but eventually dropped that defense, was convicted, and paid a $373 fine.

Repeal legislative immunity, and do it now.

— Today’s News-Herald

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