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Colorado Lawmaker Suspected of DUI Says She Didn't Invoke "Legislative Immunity"

A Republican state lawmaker who was pulled over last week  for suspected drunk driving is denying that she used her status as a lawmaker to get a free pass. But some unsatisfied Colorado lawmakers now want to take a closer look at the legislative immunity provision police say prevented them from arresting her.  KUNC's state capitol correspondent Bente Birkeland reports.

'Legislative Immunity'

When Rep. Laura Bradford (R-Collbran) was pulled over last week on suspicion of drunk driving, Denver Police let her go with only a traffic citation, even after she failed a roadside sobriety test and had admitted to drinking.

Police said, under normal circumstances, Bradford would’ve gotten a breathalyzer, a blood test and a possible arrest for a DUI, but because she told police she was a state legislator returning from state business, she was simply put in a cab and issued a citation for careless driving.

"The law is very clear if you look at it, that going to and coming from the legislative session creates a legal protection that the constitution affords," said Lt. Matt Murray, a spokesman for the Denver Police Department.

He’s referring to a provision in the Colorado constitution known as legislative immunity, which bans state lawmakers from being arrested during the legislative session unless it’s for a felony or treason.

Legislative  immunity dates back about 600 years. It was originally evoked in England as a means to protect lawmakers from the crown.  

"The question is when does this apply," said Brenda Erickson, senior research analyst with Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures

Erickson said 44 states have similar laws on the books, but there’s a lot of gray area.

"What is the time frame for the immunity, how many days before or after session? What does arrest mean? Does that mean they are totally exempt from facing the charges, or should that mean they are only exempt from being detained heading to or from legislative session," Erickson said.

A Legislative Fix?

It’s an issue state lawmakers may now tackle this session, according to House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver).

"It’s too early to say we need to get rid of it," Ferrandino said. "I think we need to clarify when it applies, how it applies, we need to make sure it’s applied in the right spots."

And Ferrandino doesn't think getting out of a DUI is a "right spot."

"It’s not there to give blanket immunity to legislators," he added. "Legislators have to be held to the same standards as every other citizen of Colorado."

Interest in reforming the immunity law appears to be gaining bi-partisan traction too.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs) said police were too lenient towards Bradford.  He's also worried the Denver Police Department’s policy is overly broad.

"It doesn’t have any inquiry about whether the legislator is going to and from the capitol, whether the legislature’s in session," Gardner said. "I don’t say that to be critical, I think it’s worth examination."

But Gardner stopped short of saying he would not support getting rid of legislative privilege all together.

"We have a 33, 32 majority," he said. "An unscrupulous mayor, police chief or Governor might well say, 'make sure Rep. Gardner doesn’t get to the house this morning' and it requires 33 votes to pass anything, you can say,
'well that would never happen,' if it had never happened in human history we would not have legislative privilege."

Apology Issued

For her part,  Representative Bradford maintained she did not use her legislative seat as a way to get out of  the DUI, while apologizing on the house floor Monday.

"In response to the officer’s inquiries, I stated that I was leaving a legislative function and needed to be at the Capitol the next day," Bradford said. "I responded to the officers’ questions, my statements were not intended to invoke legislative privilege."

But Denver Police officials said even if she didn’t invoke immunity, she also didn’t ask to be treated just like everyone else.

For now, Bradford has been removed as chair of the local government committee.

KUNC's Bente Birkeland reported this story from the Colorado state capitol.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.