Tue, July 16

Group seeks to end legislative immunity in Arizona

PHOENIX -- A newly formed group launched an initiative drive on Wednesday that one member claims will end immunity for lawmakers.

But the constitutional change they propose will not do that.

In papers filed with the Secretary of State's Office, People for Ethical Government states that the organization wants to "prohibit politicians from hiding behind immunity laws in regards to DUIs, domestic violence, postponing tax issues with the IRS, etc.' The statement of purpose says the initiative, if approved would hold politicians "to the same judicial standards as their constituents.'

The actual constitutional language, though, does not eliminate an existing provision which makes members of the Legislature "privileged from arrest in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace' during the time lawmakers are in session. That is the same privilege recently claimed by Sen. Scott Bundgaard, R-Peoria, when police arrived at the scene of a fight he was having with his girlfriend in the median of a state highway in Phoenix.

Instead, the only thing that would disappear would be the provision which says lawmakers "shall not be subject to any civil process' during the session. That covers things like being served with legal papers in lawsuits.

Frank Nelson, treasurer of the committee, said the incident with Bundgaard, who after the session was over subsequently pleaded guilty to endangerment, is only part of the reason for the change. He said other lawmakers have taken advantage of their constitutional immunity over the years, though he could not provide specifics.

In 1995, then state Rep. Phil Hubbard, D-Tucson, argued that he was entitled not to be ticketed for driving 14 miles per hour over the 55 MPH speed limit on Interstate 10 because he was en route to a legislative hearing. An assistant attorney general agreed that Hubbard was immune from getting a citation at the time but said he still would eventually have to answer the ticket after the session.

Eight years earlier, 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.