PHOENIX — An Arizona senator gets in a fight with his girlfriend on a Phoenix freeway and avoids arrest. An Arkansas legislator leads officers on a high-speed chase through two counties and doesn't get taken into custody. A Georgia lawmaker claims he couldn't be prosecuted on a DUI charge.
In each case, a little-known privilege called legislative immunity that prevents the arrests of legislators while they are in session came into play.
The issue is getting a closer look in Arizona this year after state Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, introduced a resolution seeking to amend the state Constitution to delete wording barring the arrest of legislators during, and 15 days before, legislative sessions. Like those in many other states, Arizona's legislative immunity protects legislators from arrest except for "treason, felony or breach of the peace."
Then-Sen. Scott Bundgaard became a part of the debate after he was involved in a domestic violence incident on a Phoenix freeway last year. He and his girlfriend at the time pulled off to the side of the road after an argument. The ensuing fight left both with cuts and bruises. Police showed up and put Bundgaard in handcuffs. Officers testified that he identified himself as a legislator, cited the constitutional provision and demanded that they remove handcuffs, even though Bundgaard denies invoking legislative immunity. He was allowed to go home that night without being arrested, but his girlfriend spent the night in jail. Bundgaard was later prosecuted and ended up pleading no-contest to a misdemeanor charge, eventually was ousted as Senate majority leader and quit the Legislature. The girlfriend was not prosecuted after she was deemed the victim in Bundgaard's criminal case.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says most states have similar legislative immunity provisions in their constitutions. Experts say legislative immunity, along with related protections for legislative speech and debate, has its roots in the 16th and 17th centuries, when English monarchs frequently feuded with lawmakers.
The Arkansas lawmaker was let go with a scolding but later charged and convicted of fleeing, careless driving and improper passing. There was talk in 2005 of amending the Georgia Constitution to repeal immunity after the lawmaker tried unsuccessfully to use it in the DUI case, but the provision remains law.