This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 29, 2015.
PHOENIX — An Arizona lawmaker has introduced a bill that would protect underage drinkers from prosecution if they call for medical assistance for themselves or someone else.
Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said she is sponsoring the bill, known as SB 1190, because, many young people, often college students, do drink alcohol, and they shouldn’t be punished for trying to get help should a night of drinking turn sour.
“At 18 and 20, they should be able to make a responsible decision, but they don’t always and there’s a lot of peer pressure at that age,” Ward said. “I don’t want to punish them for a mistake they made that could haunt them for the rest of their life.”
The bill grants anyone under the age of 21 immunity from prosecution if they call for medical or law enforcement assistance and are cooperative with responders. If they call concerning assistance for someone else, they would have to remain with that person until help arrives.
Ward, a physician, knows these types of situations well from working in hospital emergency departments. She said sometimes people, usually between the ages of 18 and 20, show up to the emergency room with a post-it note on them saying the person has been drinking.
Especially around spring break season in Lake Havasu City, the hospital staff has to track down whoever is responsible for that person.
“If a friend could call 9-1-1 without fearing for their own future, I think it will make a big difference,” Ward said.
Ward, who has two children in college, introduced a similar bill last year, but she was unable to get it heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee, where the legislation was sent. She said the late Sen. Chester Crandell, who chaired the committee, expressed concerns that such legislation would encourage underage drinking.
This year the bill has been read and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Twenty-one states have passed similar legislation, known as Medical Amnesty, Lifeline or Good Samaritan laws, and many more have bills up for consideration this year, according to Aaron Letzeiser, executive director of the Medical Amnesty Initiative. He works with states on passing such legislation.
Letzeiser said when minors are drinking, their first concern is whether they will get in trouble, not necessarily their own safety or the safety of others.
“For many, this is the first run-in they might have with the law, so they’re worried about getting in trouble with their school or with their parents,” he said.
He added that underage drinkers aren’t going out intending to get drunk to the point of alcohol poisoning. “They’re drinking because sometimes it’s part of the collegiate culture,” Letzeiser said.
It’s no secret that Arizona’s schools have a reputation for partying. Last year, Playboy ranked the University of Arizona fourth on its list of top party schools. Arizona State University was No. 9 on that list the year before.
Police in college towns across the state say they don’t have any specific policy for when these types of situations occur. The decision whether to cite someone for underage drinking is left to the officer’s discretion.
“It just depends on the facts in each situation,” said Lt. Michael Pooley, a spokesman for the Tempe Police Department.
Officer Jake Brady, a spokesman for the Northern Arizona University Police Department, said most officers would not cite an underage drinker if that person called for help for someone else, but it’s still up to each individual officer.
“If a guy is drunk and calls us to say that his friend is drunk and passed out and needs help, then 99 percent of the time, an officer will give that person a deferral” to go through punishment from the university rather than law enforcement, Brady said.
Ward said university police departments supported the bill last year when she spoke with them.
The University of Arizona Police Department reported 730 liquor law violations and 395 liquor law arrests in 2013. ASU police reported more than 1,300 alcohol violations on and around its campuses for the same year. No data are available on whether the person cited called for help before.
This bill is not only meant for people who need medical assistance for alcohol consumption, Ward said. It is also intended for situations of sexual assault or where someone fears for their own safety.
“If there’s a girl and she’s been at a party and had a drink or two and she’s walking home … and feels unsafe, she should be able to call 9-1-1 and get police assistance without worrying that she’s going to get a ticket,” Ward said.
No hearing has yet been scheduled for the bill.