from the as-do-our-reps-in-the-other-Washington dept
If you're speeding to make up time because you're late for work and get pulled over, chances are telling the officer, "I'm late for work," isn't going to get you much more than a condescending, "And now you're even later," along with a citation. "Late for work" still isn't an acceptable excuse for breaking the law. Unless you're a Washington State legislator.
If you're a Washington rep, all you have to do is explain you (theoretically) could be late for work and you're free to continue on your way to Olympia, ticket-free and ready to get to the twice-annual business of legislating the hell out of something.
Washington state legislators headed to work can't get speeding tickets -- or so says the Washington State Patrol and at least one local police department.But why would you be late for work? The state legislature only meets twice a year (although each session can last as long as 5 months) and you've got 15 days to get there. I suppose the day-to-day grind of an extended session might result in a few snooze-button-heavy mornings of leadfooting it to the capitol building, but for the most part, legislators shouldn't really rub up against this constitutional protection too often.
A spokesman for WSP says Washington lawmakers are constitutionally protected from receiving noncriminal traffic tickets during a legislative session, as well as 15 days before. A spokeswoman says The Tacoma Police Department abides by a similar policy.
State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins says the privilege not only applies to moving violations near the state Capitol in Olympia, but potentially anywhere in the state.
Here's the section that gives legislators the right to put constitutionally-empowered pedals to the metal.
SECTION 16 PRIVILEGES FROM ARREST. Members of the legislature shall be privileged from arrest in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace; they shall not be subject to any civil process during the session of the legislature, nor for fifteen days next before the commencement of each session.It's not just speeding tickets legislators that can avoided, if this wording is accurate. There's all sorts of criminal acts that don't reach the "felony" level, all of which could conceivably be performed without consequence during legislative sessions (and 15 days prior). If viewed this way, speeding tickets (or lack thereof) are just scratching the surface.
Believe it or not, there's a pretty solid (if outdated) rationale behind this exemption.
Hugh Spitzer, a Seattle lawyer who teaches state constitutional law at the University of Washington, said although protecting legislators from traffic tickets seems “pretty weird,” there’s a historical reason for the constitution’s privilege from arrest provisions.The Washington Constitution wasn't ratified until 1889, so chances are that the threat of King George III disrupting legislative business had largely dissipated. But like many state constitutions, it draws heavily on the original, which includes this section:
The Stewart kings in 17th-century England were known for arresting political opponents and keeping them from reaching Parliament to vote, Spitzer said. The authors of the Declaration of Independence had similar complaints about King George III interfering with their regular legislative meetings, he said.
“It’s very old and there’s a good reason in the first place, but sometimes those reasons go away,” said Spitzer, who co-wrote “The Washington State Constitution: A Reference Guide.”
Section. 6.Even though the rationale behind this section no longers exists, the law remains on the books and can be construed by wily lawmakers as a free pass for speeding. And even though the threat of an interfering king is long gone, it's not hard to imagine a crooked politician abusing his or her power to have opponents detained by a "friends" in the law enforcement community. This may be just as uncommon as the threat it was originally written to address, but it doesn't hurt to have some sort of protection built in to ensure legislators are free to go about the business of legislating unhassled by The Man.
The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.
On the other hand, the outdated rationale does lend itself to abuse. The fact that the legislature only meets twice a year will greatly limit the abuse and there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Washington politicians are routinely exceeding the posted speed limits. Certainly this is a better solution than issuing legislators special license plates that are essentially "ticket-proof" 365 days a year, as they don't exist in the DMV database. (Although if you're interested in special plates, Washington will issue you a "square dancer license plate" for an additional fee. [Picture here.]) But still, it's always a little disheartening to hear that lawmakers are immune from the same laws they've crafted, even if only on a part-time basis.