Opinion editorial by Rep. Dave Hayes: Escaping traffic tickets should no longer be a privilege of state legislators
A few months ago, a Tacoma newspaper reported that the Washington State Patrol and some other law enforcement agencies will not issue tickets for moving violations to Washington legislators during a legislative session. The State Patrol cites a provision in Washington's constitution, enacted in 1889, which reads: “Members of the Legislature shall be privileged from arrest in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace; they shall not be subject to any civil process during the session of the Legislature, nor for 15 days next before the commencement of each session.”
The law was written back when legislators traveled for days across the state to reach the Capitol, sometimes on horseback, and it was intended to prevent them from being obstructed from their participation in the Legislature.
Times have changed quite a bit in 124 years. While this exemption may have been valid a century ago, today it projects an image of elitism about our state Legislature – even though I'm convinced no one in the Legislature would take advantage of it today. In fact, some legislators stopped for speeding have asked the officer to write them a ticket, only to be rejected.
As a state legislator and a patrol sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Department, I believe no one should be above the law, especially those who write the laws. That is why I plan to introduce a bill that would eliminate traffic ticket exemptions for state legislators. The measure would clarify that the issuance of a traffic citation to a legislator is not a “civil process” under the state constitution. This is important because the interpretation of “civil process” is confusing and is why the State Patrol won't write tickets to legislators, while other law enforcement agencies, such as the Olympia Police Department, do. The bill would clarify that state legislators who violate traffic laws may receive a ticket, regardless of whether or not the Legislature is in session.
Court appearances or other hearings related to disposition of a traffic citation received by a state legislator are still considered “civil process” and could not be scheduled during a legislative session. This part of the law could not be changed without a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority of the Legislature and a simple majority of Washington's voters. This also remains a legitimate provision in the state constitution, even in modern times, because it was designed to prevent political gamesmanship, such as compelling a court hearing against a legislator whose absence at just the right time would provide an advantage to one side during a vote. It's also important to note that legislators who are summoned to court cannot escape those hearings. It's just that the hearings cannot be scheduled during a legislative session.
You often hear state legislators talk about “accountability” – holding state agencies accountable with your tax dollars, holding educators accountable for providing children with a quality education, etc. Shouldn't accountability begin with those we elect to office?
When our laws are misinterpreted to grant privileges to state legislators afforded to no one else, it creates a greater mistrust between citizens and their government. There's no room for elitism in Washington state government. We are a citizen Legislature and should not be beyond the reach of laws we create for other citizens. Our greatest privilege as elected members of the Legislature should be to serve the public, not ourselves. It's time to update this law.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, serves the 10th Legislative District. He is also the assistant ranking Republican of the House Public Safety Committee and works for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Department.