Kansas Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, one of the top Republican legislators, was arrested and booked into jail on allegations of driving under the influence and fleeing law enforcement early Tuesday. The Highway Patrol said he was suspected of driving the wrong way on Interstate 70.
But a judge didn’t find probable cause against him and consequently released him hours after his arrest, citing only the “failure to include pertinent information” in his arrest report.
The Wichita legislator’s journey from arrest to jumpsuit-clad court appearance to free man roiled the Legislature, and raised questions about what caused Judge Penny Moylan to halt the case against him after it had barely begun.
Moylan, appointed to the Shawnee County District Court in 2019 by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, didn’t elaborate on her decision, which she announced during a slew of first appearances in a small Topeka courtroom.
Suellentrop, 69, appearing in court from the Shawnee County Detention Center via Zoom wearing greenish-yellow jail garb at about 10:40 a.m., sounded almost surprised when told he would be released. He seemed to confer with someone off-camera that he would, indeed, be let go.
Former Sen. Eric Rucker, a Topeka Republican, was the only observer in the courtroom for the appearance beside reporters. He left immediately after, but said he wasn’t Suellentrop’s attorney.
The Highway Patrol in a statement alleged Suellentrop was suspected of driving a white SUV the wrong way on I-70 and that when a Capitol Police officer attempted to pull over the vehicle, it failed to stop. The Capitol Police is a division of the Highway Patrol.
“A short pursuit followed,” Highway Patrol spokeswoman Candice Beshears said in an email.
The vehicle stopped at I-70 and Eighth Street, a common exit for vehicles headed for downtown Topeka and the Capitol. At that point, the Highway Patrol says it arrested Suellentrop on suspicion of driving under the influence, fleeing or evading law enforcement and other traffic violations.
He was booked into the Shawnee County Detention Center at 3:55 a.m., jail records show. The allegations listed against him included misdemeanor DUI, fleeing or attempting to flee law enforcement, speeding and improper crossover on a divided highway.
While Moylan didn’t find probable cause, Beshears said the Highway Patrol planned to forward information on to the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office.
When the Senate convened Tuesday afternoon, Suellentrop wasn’t present. Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said before session that he had not yet spoken to Suellentrop. Mike Pirner, a spokesman for Masterson and Suellentrop, said he also had not heard from the majority leader.
Legislative work, Masterson said, would go on as scheduled.
“I expect my caucus to do the duties that they were assigned to regardless of circumstances,” Masterson said. “All we know for sure is that there was an arrest on suspicion of DUI and that he was released without charges.”
“We just have so little. I know the rumor mill’s going nuts.”
For the most part, Democrats declined to comment. “I was surprised to hear that, I hope he’s doing well and I really don’t have enough information to draw any conclusions,” said Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat.
Kansas legislators enjoy some protection from arrest during the legislative session, but it’s unclear whether that played a role in Moylan’s decision. The state constitution says legislators cannot be arrested “except for treason, felony or breach of the peace” during session or coming and going from the Legislature’s meeting place.
The Highway Patrol Records department said no portion of the incident report stemming from Suellentrop’s arrest would be available for “several weeks.” The first page of an incident report is public record in Kansas even during an active investigation.
Suellentrop is far from the first Kansas lawmaker to face allegations of driving under the influence. In 2019, Democratic Rep. Vic Miller, at the time a senator, was arrested and charged with DUI, but later entered into a diversion agreement.
But Suellentrop is a high-ranking lawmaker and his arrest comes as Republicans are pushing to pass significant measures requiring in-person schooling and restricting Kelly’s emergency powers.
Suellentrop, who’s been in the Legislature since 2009, has grown his influence over the years. Before Republicans chose him as majority leader after the November election, he chaired the Senate Health and Public Welfare Committee. As chair, he helped block the advancement of Medicaid expansion along with then-Senate President Susan Wagle.
“It’s unfortunate and I’m glad no one was hurt,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said.