Fri, May 24

Lawyers debate immunity in lawmaker's domestic violence case

Tucson's top prosecutor said Friday he will fight any effort by state Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, to delay court proceedings in the domestic violence case against him.

Baird Greene said the constitutional provision giving lawmakers limited immunity applies only in cases of arrest. And in this case, he said, Patterson was never taken into custody.

Joe St. Louis, Patterson's attorney, conceded that is true.

But he reads the constitutional language to make Patterson free from any court proceedings while the Legislature is in session. And the lawmaker is scheduled to be in court at 2 p.m. Thursday for pretrial proceedings.

Greene, however, said St. Louis is ignoring one thing.

"If you read the (constitutional) provision, it states the legislative immunity is not available when there is a breach of the peace,' he said. Greene said the charges of domestic violence against Patterson fit that definition.

St. Louis countered that at least some of the charges against his client do not.

Whether he has to be in court or not on Wednesday, nothing in the constitution will protect Patterson against a complaint that his conduct has violated House rules. The Ethics Committee convenes Monday afternoon to begin the formal process.

"It'll be a very preliminary meeting,' said Rep. Ted Vogt, R-Tucson, who chairs the panel. He said the five members -- three Republicans and two Democrats -- will lay out "the way ahead.'

Vogt said he has no specific deadlines in mind. But he said he wants the matter resolved "sooner rather than later.'

The immunity issue arises because the Arizona Constitution says lawmakers "shall be privileged from arrest' except in cases of treason, felony or breach of the peace while the Legislature is in session. But St. Louis said it's not as simple as that.

"The purpose is so it doesn't interfere with the ability to get the job done,' he said. St. Louis said if Patterson has to be in court to deal with the charges against him, he cannot fulfill his constitutional obligations to be in Phoenix to represent his constituents.

And St. Louis said it's not that Patterson is "invoking his immunity.'

"You either have immunity or you don't,' the attorney said. And in this case, St. Louis said, there is immunity from having to answer the charges while the Legislature remains in session and he cannot be compelled to appear in court to defend himself during that time.

There has been no definitive Arizona court ruling on how far that immunity extends, though several Southern Arizona lawmakers have tested the limits.

Phil Hubbard, who was a Democratic representative from Tucson, was clocked at driving 69 miles an hour on Interstate 10 in 1995 when the speed limit was 55. Hubbard argued he could not be ticketed because he was driving to a legislative hearing.

An assistant state attorney general concluded Hubbard could not be cited at the time. But he said Hubbard was still required to answer the citation in court once the legislative session was over.

In 1987, then Rep. Bill English, R-Sierra Vista, was arrested on a charge of drunken driving. English initially claimed immunity but eventually dropped that defense, was convicted and paid a $373 fine.

The charges against Patterson stem from two separate incidents involving Georgette Escobar, the woman with whom he was living and who also was his campaign manager.

Court records show he was charged with assault with intent to injure, unlawful imprisonment and disorderly conduct following a February incident. After that incident, Escobar got an order of protection against Patterson.

A fourth charge, added on Monday, charges Patterson with harassment.

St. Louis said his client is innocent.

Vogt, while declining to discuss the specifics of the charges against Patterson, said the decisions of the committee are not governed by what is going on in court.

On one hand, he said any House probe should not interfere with or compromise any criminal investigation.

"Likewise, however, the Ethics Committee is not a committee that finds any sort of criminal liability,' he said.

"The question is, have you violated the rules of the House,' Vogt continued. "That's really the sole issue before the ethics committee, and, if the committee finds that, what is the appropriate punishment.'