WA Legislators Get A Free Pass On Speeding Tickets During Legislative Sessions

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.

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.

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.

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 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.”

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:

Section. 6.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments on “WA Legislators Get A Free Pass On Speeding Tickets During Legislative Sessions”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The reason for excepting representative from arrest during session no longer exists? Hardly. The provision was put in place so the kings men couldn’t detain members of parliament. We still have a “parliament” and groups that can detain people.

Just because the men and women who abuse the privilege are lower than dirt, doesn’t mean that the whole privilege is bad. A straight forward answer to this abuse is….vote them out of office.

Landon J Ascheman (user link) says:

Stop, Arrest, & Charge

These articles look a little crazy to begin with, but are not that extreme in the field.

Something that is commonly over looked with these is that the person cannot be “arrested” or receiving civil process. That means they cannot be ticketed during session (or 15 days before), but the ticket can be mailed out to them when session is over.

And as for criminal charges, they can be served and charged, just not arrested.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So lets put this in perspective...

Put it this way, when they wrote the constitution, there is a gap of a few months between election day and the President starting his term.

I’ve heard the purpose was to allow the president-elect enough time to travel to the capital. I’ve been assuming that the horse-drawn carriage was the preferred mode of travel at the time.

shawn says:

Above the LAW?

This is horse crap. These so-called lawmakers/legislators should NEVER be above the laws they dictate. They should be held to a higher standard of civil duty and obedience. Being late is a fact of life. It can happen to anyone. Why shouldn’t they just be held to the law, obey the speed limits, drive SAFELY, and be late to work???? I think we’re missing the point here. SAFETY of the citizens. If ALLOWED to speed, the chances of accidents increases, and thus the safety of drivers and pedestrians is jeopardized. This should be common sense, but of course, I realize we are talking about politician and lawmakers, so never mind.

arcane (profile) says:

Oh, for fuck’s sake! Why is everyone acting like this is a big deal?!

1. It’s not specific to Washington. Just about every state has some version of that same law.

2. The Federal government has the same law.

3. It’s a really good idea. Would you like police to be able to harass and detain your elected representatives in order to prevent their votes?

4. It’s not a get out of jail card. Any felony, including DUI, manslaughter, etc., is not included. It’s just civil traffic stuff.

5. How many times has this even been a factor? Wake me when we have some legislator in a Ferrari setting speed records on I5 just because he feels like it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why is everyone acting like this is a big deal?!

Perhaps because people are getting really, really sick of the fact that we effectively have two sets of laws: one for the rich & powerful, and one for everyone else.

Things like this, while relatively innocuous, are a light dusting of salt on the gaping wound.

Erik Grant says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you look at one of the other commenters above, he noted that in most states, these laws do not exempt lawmakers from speeding tickets, only ensure that they can’t be arrested. As long as the statute of limitations is one day longer than the legislative session, they can still receive a ticket.

Now, that said, is any copy going to ticket a member of the state legislature? Hell to the no. But that’s a different problem.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

That’s my reading of the law, too. And I’d be supportive of a practice that adhered strictly to that — then they could still get speeding tickets (getting a ticket is not being arrested), but any arrests would have to wait until later.

However, the fact remains that legislators aren’t issued the tickets in the first place. That’s the wrong thing.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

was it techdirt that had a similar article...

…that said the colorado legislators had ‘special’ license plates that weren’t kept in the state’s database, so they would not get speeding tickets by camera, etc ?

*sure* we’re all equal, only some (approx 1%) are more equal than others…

four legs good, two legs bad…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

M. Alan Thomas II (profile) says:

The wording of the constitutions appears to be a ban on arrest and process during sessions and travel, not perpetual immunity to any acts committed during that time*. In other words, the cops could just wait until after the session ends and then mail the legislator the ticket, arrest them, or whatever.

*Except for the speech & debate protections in Congress, where you can only be sanctioned by Congress.

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