LITTLE ROCK (AP) — A state senator was charged Wednesday with fleeing, careless driving and improper passing after authorities initially let him off with a scolding for leading them on what they called a high-speed chase through two counties.
Perry County Sheriff Scott Montgomery said his office had charged Republican Sen. Bruce Holland of Greenwood with the offenses for the speeding incident on Monday on Highway 10 in Perry and Yell counties. Holland apologized on Tuesday to the Senate and admitted he was speeding.
Montgomery said in a statement released by his office that the decision to charge Holland was "solely" the decision of Deputy Ray Byrd, who said he mistakenly believed the state Constitution granted lawmakers immunity from arrest during legislative sessions. A 2003 attorney general’s opinion said that lawmakers can be ticketed or arrested for criminal offenses.
"I deeply regret the incident occurred but it was not by any fault of my Department or its employees," Montgomery said. "Investigator Byrd could have done one of two things, ignore it or do the right thing. Investigator Byrd chose to do his job."
Montgomery did not immediately return a call seeking comment and said in the statement that he had instructed his department to not comment outside the court system. Byrd declined to comment.
Holland, who did not immediately respond to a message left at his office, apologized in a prepared statement and on the Senate floor on Tuesday. He admitted speeding, but told reporters he didn’t know how fast he was going. Montgomery said he has notified Holland’s office and instructed him to report to his office to be formally charged.
Holland received a standing ovation from the Senate when he apologized on Tuesday.
Holland told reporters he would be happy to pay a fine if the department cited him. Holland faces up to a $100 fine each for the fleeing and improper passing offenses. Fleeing is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.
Prosecutor Larry Jegley said he typically trusts the discretion of the judge on misdemeanor traffic offenses and was not advocating a particular penalty for Holland.
Byrd said he initially thought Holland was exempt from arrest because of a provision in the state Constitution. The provision says that legislators "shall, in all cases except treason, felony and breach or surety of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the sessions of their respective houses, and in gong and returning from the same."
But Gov. Mike Beebe, as attorney general in 2003, issued a legal opinion that said that provision didn’t give lawmakers blanket immunity from being arrested.
Beebe said Wednesday he wasn’t aware that Holland had been charged. Beebe said he believed lawmakers should be ticketed or charged like anyone else would be.
Byrd said Tuesday that he was driving an unmarked pickup truck when Holland passed him speeding. He said he pursued Holland with his lights flashing for about 15 or 16 miles on the two-lane highway passing through residential areas.
Byrd said he didn’t realize Holland was a state senator until he saw him wearing a name tag with his title on it, and let him off with a stern warning. Byrd said Tuesday he was wrong to let Holland off with only a warning.