The dust-up over state Sen. Don East’s 145-mph joyride brings to mind previous legislative wheelmen and their real or imagined immunities.
In 1992 state Sen. Joe Johnson of Wake County, pulled over by Raleigh police for not wearing a seat belt as he drove to a lobbyists’ reception, cited a 1787 law protecting legislators “except in cases of crime, from all arrest and imprisonment during the time of their going to, coming from, or attending the General Assembly.”
Johnson persuaded the district attorney to drop the citation, but two weeks later he gave in to public protest by paying the $25 fine and apologizing for having demanded that two police officers be fired. The legislature, embarrassed, rewrote the law to clarify that it doesn’t extend to infractions such as seat belt violations and expired inspection stickers.
And then there’s this intriguing brief from Time magazine (Jan. 21, 1952): “After a 17-mile race through a mounting North Carolina blizzard, Mississippi’s Democratic Representative John E. Rankin was arrested by a highway patrolman, charged with careless and reckless driving. Ol’ John’s futile defense: congressional immunity to arrest except for ‘treason, felony, or a breach of the peace.’ “