Citing a little known state law that effectively gives legislators immunity from self-incrimination, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol said the agency cannot investigate claims that Sen. Don East was driving on public roads at speeds twice the posted limit.
Sgt. Jorge Brewer, spokesman for the patrol, said troopers typically must witness a motorist speeding to write a ticket, except in cases where there is an investigation into an accident involving death or serious injury.
But even if the patrol was interested in ticketing Sen. Don East, who a fellow legislator said Monday had taken him on a 145-mile per hour joyride in a muscle car on U.S. 52, Brewer pointed to a state law potentially giving East immunity:
§ 120‑9. Freedom of speech. The members shall have freedom of speech and debate in the General Assembly, and shall not be liable to impeachment or question, in any court or place out of the General Assembly, for words therein spoken.
The history of the statute goes all the way back to 1787 and the creation of the state. It has been amended several times over the intervening centuries, most recently in 2000. Then, the title of the law was changed from "Freedom of speech and protection from arrest," to the current shorter title.
But the title change does not affect the basic effect of the law. No state legislator can be prosecuted in state court for statements made on the floor of the state House or Senate, even if that legislator effectively confesses to be party to a crime.
Of course, in this case it was not the senator who incriminated himself, but a colleague who said he was in the passenger seat when East, a Republican from Pilot Mountain and retired police officer, violated the law.
Sen. Stan Bingham, a Republican from Denton, said Monday he and East had been driving their motorcycles on curvy roads in excess of 100 miles per hour before the two got into East's Dodge Charger SRT8.
"So I got in the car, we're driving along 25-30 miles per hour for a little short distance until we get out to (U.S.) 52, and there's a ramp there, and Don said, 'How far do you think it is down to the end of the ramp?' And I said, 'I dunno, maybe 300-400 yards.' God knows, we were running 145 miles per hour by the time we hit the end of the ramp."
The speed limit on that stretch of U.S 52 is 65 miles per hour. East has refused to comment on whether Bingham's account of their speed is accurate, beyond saying he "pleads not guilty."