No special treatment for law-breaking lawmakers

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneSeptember 23, 2013 

Get pulled over by the State Patrol? No problem – as long you’re a state legislator during session or for 15 days before.

STAFF FILE PHOTO

Many Washingtonians likely were surprised to read that the State Patrol, the Tacoma Police Department and many other law enforcement agencies give legislators a pass when they’re pulled over for speeding or other civil infractions.

The law enforcement agencies point to Article II, Section 16 of the state constitution for why they don’t issue tickets. It states that legislators “shall not be subject to any civil process” while the Legislature is in session and the 15 days before. They are, however, subject to arrest for criminal actions, such as driving under the influence.

Once drivers identify themselves as serving in the Legislature, the State Patrol, TPD and others that observe the no-ticket rule will let them off with just a warning. The jurisdictions do have the option of sending lawmakers a ticket after the legislative session ends, but apparently that doesn’t happen.

Several lawmakers report that they’ve been ticketed when they didn’t identify themselves as legislators. It would be “bad form” to seek the special privilege, says former state Sen. Debbie Regala of Tacoma, who was ticketed once by the State Patrol for speeding on her way to the Capitol.

One legislator – state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina – said he couldn’t even get a ticket when he asked for it after he was pulled over for going 71 mph on Interstate 5 through Fife. He introduced legislation in 2005 to clarify state law so that lawmakers could be ticketed year-round, but the bill didn’t even get a hearing. What a surprise.

Here’s what’s really confusing about this special privilege – and let’s acknowledge that that is exactly what it is: Not every agency honors it.

The Olympia Police Department – whose officers are among the most likely to have contact with legislators during session – gives no special treatment. And the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and Seattle Police Department have no policy allowing legislators to get out of tickets. Are officers with these departments violating the state constitution?

A weak case could be made for not ticketing legislators during session on the theory that it might make them miss a crucial vote – although once a driver’s been pulled over, getting a ticket doesn’t take up that much more time. But there’s no conceivable rationale for declining to issue a ticket in the run-up to session. What? They might be late for lunch?

If lawmakers aren’t ticketed for speeding, do they also get a free pass if they’re caught texting or using their cellphone while driving – something the Legislature has made illegal for the rest of us? What if they illegally pass a school bus – which carries a $394 fine?

Legislators pass the laws that apply to everyone else. They should be prepared to abide by them – and suffer the consequences when they fail to. If that means not identifying themselves as legislators when they get pulled over, then in all fairness that’s what they should do.

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