TACOMA — It’s a joke shared privately among some state lawmakers in Olympia: Go ahead, drive as fast as you want on the way to the Capitol. You won’t get a ticket — it’s the law.
Though said in jest, the advice is rooted in reality. Legislators headed to work can’t get speeding tickets — or so says the Washington State Patrol and at least one local police department.
A spokesman for WSP says Washington lawmakers are constitutionally protected from receiving noncriminal traffic tickets during a legislative session, as well as 15 days before. The Tacoma Police Department abides by a similar policy, a spokeswoman said.
The privilege not only applies to moving violations near the state Capitol in Olympia, but potentially anywhere in the state, said State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins.
The logic? Detaining lawmakers on the road — even for the time it takes to issue them a speeding ticket — may delay them from getting to the Capitol to vote, Calkins said.
Lawmakers could be in Spokane, hundreds of miles from Olympia, and still get a pass if they tell a trooper they’re headed to legislative business, Calkins said.
“As soon as we find out they are a legislator, if they choose to tell us, then we need to get them on their way as soon as possible,” Calkins said.
The State Patrol’s rule is known to many at the Capitol, though some consider it “informal mythology,” said state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma.
“It’s commonly joked about,” said Darneille, who has been in the Legislature since 2001. “I have never seen anything in writing . and I’ve never tested it.”
Calkins said the dispensation comes from Article II, Section 16 of the state constitution, which says lawmakers “shall be privileged from arrest in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace” while the Legislature meets. That section of the constitution also says legislators “shall not be subject to any civil process” during the session and the 15 days prior.
The State Patrol considers a noncriminal traffic ticket a civil process, Calkins said, much like being summoned to court to respond to a civil suit.
The state Attorney General’s Office issued a 1979 opinion that would suggest lawmakers aren’t protected from receiving traffic tickets, but the law has changed since then, spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie wrote in an email to The News Tribune. Although traffic offenses were once considered criminal matters, the state began punishing most of them via civil fines in 1981.
Calkins said state lawmakers still can be arrested and cited for criminal behavior, such as driving under the influence. They can also receive parking tickets.
“It’s not a complete free pass to go do anything they want to do and never be held accountable,” Calkins said.
The privilege doesn’t apply year-round, as legislative sessions generally last 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered ones.
But extra sessions can make the benefit last longer, as was the case in 2013, when lawmakers met for 153 days between January and June.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said when lawmakers discuss the perk, they mostly warn each other to avoid using it.
“If you’re an elected official and you’re ever involved with law enforcement, it’s only going to create more problems for you if you say, ‘Hey, I’m a member of the House,’ or ‘I’m a state senator,”’ Jinkins said.
But state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said sometimes lawmakers can’t get a ticket even if they want one. Hunter said he was stopped for speeding during his first term in the House, and a state trooper refused to issue him a ticket even after he asked for a citation.
“I was going 71 miles per hour in Fife on the freeway,” Hunter said. “I should have gotten a ticket.”
After that, Hunter introduced a bill in the House that would have clarified state law so legislators could still receive traffic tickets year-round. The 2005 bill didn’t receive a hearing.
Other state lawmakers said they weren’t aware of the State Patrol’s practice and disagree with the idea of troopers giving legislators special treatment.
“I think if they determine to give a ticket, they should,” said Republican Sen. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley, a retired Spokane County District Court judge who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
Hugh Spitzer, a Seattle lawyer who teaches state constitutional law at the University of Washington, said although protecting legislators from traffic tickets seems “pretty weird,” there’s a historical reason for the constitution’s privilege from arrest provisions.
The Stewart kings in 17th-century England were known for arresting political opponents and keeping them from reaching Parliament to vote, Spitzer said. The authors of the Declaration of Independence had similar complaints about King George III interfering with their regular legislative meetings, he said.
“It’s very old and there’s a good reason in the first place, but sometimes those reasons go away,” said Spitzer, who co-wrote “The Washington State Constitution: A Reference Guide.”
Spitzer said the constitution’s language saying lawmakers can’t be subjected to any civil process could be seen as applying to a traffic ticket, which he described as the equivalent of a court summons that can be avoided by paying a civil fine.
“It’s a civil process,” Spitzer said. “If you don’t like it, the solution is to amend the constitution.”
But what about other civil processes, such as a lawmaker’s spouse starting divorce proceedings during the session? Spitzer said he wasn’t sure.
Not all police agencies share the State Patrol’s interpretation of the law as it applies to traffic tickets.
Laura Wohl, spokeswoman for the Olympia Police Department, said Olympia officers don’t treat legislators different from anyone else. And neither the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office nor the Seattle Police Department have policies in place about ticketing legislators, spokesmen for the agencies said.
Other departments follow the State Patrol’s lead and don’t cite legislators during the session.
“By state law, we’re not allowed to,” said Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, though she said she couldn’t remember any time a Tacoma officer let a legislator skate.
Calkins, the State Patrol spokesman, said few of the state’s 147 lawmakers ever benefit from the constitutional protection — though it’s hard to say precisely how few.
“We don’t have a form that people fill out that says, ‘I stopped a legislator today,”’ Calkins said. “It’s a handful of times — maybe five, six times a year.”
Calkins said the State Patrol could always mail lawmakers a ticket after the legislative session is over, but it has never done that — partly because troopers so commonly issue warnings anyway.
“It would seem kind of petty to mail somebody a ticket when they’re a legislator when we let so many other people go,” Calkins said.