DUI IMMUNITY: Officer opens up on lawmaker's drunken drive - KMSP-TV

DUI IMMUNITY: Officer opens up on lawmaker's drunken drive

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It's a controversial debate at the Minnesota Capitol -- are elected lawmakers legally shielded from drunken driving arrests during the legislative session? The Fox 9 Investigators found at least one was.

Late Wednesday night, the debate on the so-called immunity cards that elected officials in both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature receive at the beginning of each session played out on the floor of the Minnesota House before a bill Concordia University students helped craft was overwhelmingly passed.

"We're not going to stop. I will be here tomorrow. I will be here on Monday and whatever days are next," Hope Baker vowed. "I am not going to stop."

The bill is now moving on to the Senate, and the students plan to sit down with Gov. Mark Dayton next week -- but some lawmakers who oppose the bill say the students have manufactured a problem that doesn't exist.

Opponents contend that the students can't prove a legislator has ever used or abused their immunity, but as it turns out, that's not true.

At least one case happened decades ago, but both the judge and the police officer involved at the time say it should come as no surprise that there are so few cases in the public record -- not because it never happens, but because it never gets reported.

Bill Chaplin has plenty of memories from his 40 years with the Minneapolis Police Department, but the best don't come in a box of photos.

"I was working the old tactical squad," he recalled. "We worked citywide in unmarked cars."

It was 1969, and Murry's Butterknife Steak was the best you could get -- and the Gay 90's wasn't yet. In fact, it was a straight strip club -- and the steakhouse and strip joint were just some of the stops a couple of small-town legislators made after a late night at the Capitol.

When they got in their car and headed back to St. Paul, they made the mistake of blowing a red light and speeding past Chaplin, who had no idea Rep. Frank Theis was behind the wheel.

"He was incredibly belligerent, so I cuffed him right away," Chaplin remembered.

While Chaplin was dealing with Theis, the passenger got out and promptly fell down a muddy hill at what was to be the new entrance ramp to Interstate 94.

"Next thing, when he's crawling up the hill on all fours -- but in one hand, he is waving a card and going, 'You can't arrest us; we have immunity. We have immunity,'" Chaplin said.

Chaplin and his partner called in a sergeant who took Theis and his passenger to a coffee shop to sober them up before sending them on their way, but that bothered Chaplin.

"He was so condescending and so arrogant," he said. "He just felt so entitled."

Chaplin asked the city attorney to charge Theis, who has since died -- but that's something he doesn't think other officers would dare to do.

"In outstate Minnesota, everybody knows everybody -- sheriffs, politicians," he said. "You would probably jeopardize your job if you did what I did."

After the fact, the city attorney did charge Theis with DUI and careless driving; however, since the sergeant had let the immunity keep them from taking a blood-alcohol test, there was no evidence beyond the officers' descriptions.

The judge did find Theis guilty of careless driving, but on the issue of drunk driving, the judge ruled there was reasonable doubt. As a result, Theis was not guilty.

Yet, the judge did write something else -- that lawmakers don't' actually have immunity from arrest and that police shouldn't be letting them off.

He wrote, "If police officers through the state have been so informed, it is high time that such a practice be corrected."

In other words, even if lawmakers technically don't have that immunity, the practical result is the same if police believe they do. A lot of years have passed since, and a lot of golf balls have flown by since that judge's ruling. Police speak privately of the lawmakers they've let go -- but of course, there are no records to prove it. No arrest, no paperwork, and no one's talking.

"Who's going to tell?" Chaplin asked. "The officer is not going to go public and say, 'We got this drunk legislator and we let him go,' and the legislator is not going to go out and say, 'I was out driving drunk and got caught.'"

As for why some think the protection law needs to be amended if a judge has already ruled lawmakers have no immunity from criminal arrest, that's because a higher court could make a different decision and rule lawmakers are protected.

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