There’s a reason we have laws against driving under the influence: drunk driving compromises judgment, impairs reaction time, and is one of the leading causes of car accidents in the United States. We’ve created laws to curb this danger, but the laws can’t be effective unless they apply to everyone—and there’s evidence that police officers and lawmakers are sometimes getting free passes when caught red-handed.
One of the most recent and striking examples of this lenient attitude towards law enforcers comes from Wisconsin, where a woman was arrested for drunk driving after a police officer hit her car in February 2013. The officer, Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Quiles, T-boned Tanya Weyker’s car after running a stop sign.
Ms. Weyker suffered a broken neck in four places, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Quiles then blamed her for the accident and arrested her for drunk driving. In his official report, the officer said he had come to a complete halt at the stop sign and that Weyker was to blame for the accident. Eventually, tests came back showing that Weyker had been completely sober, and surveillance footage showed that Quiles had, in fact, run a stop sign before plowing into her.
Amazingly, even after this damning evidence came to light, the Wisconsin county where the accident occurred still demanded that Weyker pay for damages. After five grueling months, the case finally went to the DA’s office, and the prosecutor decided not to file charges. County officials failed to notify Weyker or to reprimand Quiles for falsifying his police report. Quiles, who suffered far less serious injuries than Weyker in the accident, has filed for permanent duty disability, and as of May 2014, Weyker is still waiting for the county to cover her medical bills.
Lawmakers Also Benefit from DUI “Blind Eye”
Tanya Weyker’s case may be one of the most extreme and egregious examples of authority figures taking advantage of their position, but it’s certainly not the only one. In fact, some states even have provisions in their constitutions granting lawmakers immunity for certain violations, including drunk driving. In Minnesota, a provision that dates all the way back to the 19th century allows lawmakers to receive a physical card giving them “privilege from arrest” (with exceptions for treason, felony, and breach of the peace—Minnesota doesn’t want to seem too unreasonable). It’s essentially a “Get Out of Jail Free” card pulled straight from a Monopoly board.
43 states currently have some version of legislative immunity in their constitutions, written into law with the idea that policymakers needed to be protected from “arbitrary arrests.” Our own state of Colorado is one of them, and we’re certainly not free of guilt when it comes to turning a blind eye to policymakers’ DUI violations.
In 2012, state Representative Laura Bradford caused a controversy when she invoked legislative immunity after being pulled over on the suspicion of drunk driving. A Denver police officer pulled Bradford over after she made an illegal turn at a traffic stop. He reported that he smelled alcohol on her breath, and Bradford admitted that she had been drinking. It was then that she allegedly invoked legislative immunity, and the officer ended up only ticketing her for an illegal lane change and sending her home in a taxi. Bradford later apologized to her House colleagues, but she also claimed that she was just responding to officers’ questions and not asking outright for legislative immunity.
Denver police have a specific policy that says a legislator can be charged with a DUI, but only when there is an accident with a serious injury or fatality. In cases where there is no injury, officers can make the decision to send the lawmaker home in a cab, as they did with Bradford.
Immunity for Authority Sends Bad Message
The fact that authority figures like Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Quiles and Colorado House Representative Laura Bradford are endangering others is certainly an issue, but the bigger picture problem is that they’re getting away with risky behavior that those in a less privileged position would not be forgiven for. This sends a message that’s incredibly damaging: if people in a position of power are above the law, then our judicial system isn’t working.
As a Colorado defense attorney, I believe that we need to hold legislators and police officers accountable at a local, state, and federal level. It’s not okay just to charge average people with a DUI—a conviction that can lead to fines, criminal record, lost license, and even prison time—when powerful figures are able to brush off drunk driving as a mistake with almost no consequences.
About the Author
Kimberly Diego is a DUI defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Her work in fraud and domestic violence cases has been recognized at a national level, propelling her toward wide recognition and appreciation in the legal community.