Medical amnesty bill moves forward in State Senate

This story appeared on the Daily Wildcat on Feb. 20, 2015.

PHOENIX — A bill that would grant immunity from prosecution for underage drinkers who call for help cleared its first hurdle Thursday when a Senate panel voted to move the bill forward.

Dozens of college students with Arizona flag buttons that read “EMTs without MICs” packed a Senate hearing room to show support for SB 1190. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill by a 6-1 vote and it now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said this measure would remove the fear underage drinkers have of a “mark on their record” that keeps them from calling 911 if someone needs medical help.

“We have had cases where people who are underage who are afraid of getting an underage drinking ticket left their friends in the emergency room with just a post-it note on them … and we’ve had dire consequences and death when that happens,” Ward said.

Critics argue that this removes discretion from law enforcement officers and prosecutors by providing a “blanket amnesty.”

SB 1190, which Ward calls the “Saving Lives, Saving Futures” bill, would give anyone under the age of 21 immunity from prosecution if they call for help from medical or law enforcement officials, stay at the scene and remain cooperative with officers. An amendment added by the Senate Judiciary Committee made clear that the immunity would apply to both the person who is calling for help and the person for whom help is requested.

This type of immunity for underage drinkers — known as Medical Amnesty, Lifeline Laws or Good Samaritan Laws — is on the books in 21 other states and the District of Columbia.

Devon Mills, who worked with Ward to craft the legislation, is a former Arizona State University student and testified before the committee that this bill would remove the “barrier of fear” that an underage drinker has when they consider calling for help for someone in need.

Mills and Ward worked on a similar bill last year that did not get a committee hearing.

Mills invoked the story of Jack Culolias, an ASU student who drowned in Tempe Town Lake after a night of drinking. He also cited a study from North Dakota State University that found students or minors in alcohol emergency situations call friends for help far more often than they call 911.

“The reason they didn’t reach out to people most equipped to deal with these situations was because they were afraid of the repercussions a citation for underage drinking could have with not only the law, but the university, their academic program … or their scholarship,” Mills said.

Mills also said this immunity could also be utilized in a sexual assault situation, where someone may fear reporting it because alcohol was involved.

Not everyone there was in support of the bill.

Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, came out in opposition to the bill because of concerns from county sheriffs and attorneys that this would take discretion away from them in those situations.

She said this bill would set “bad precedent” and suggested that the students campaign for underage drinkers to call for help regardless of what repercussions come.

“That kind of campaign could go a long way toward educating people about making sure that the people who need help have help, even if there is someone kind of consequence to you because that’s the way our role as adults in society works,” Marson said.

Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, the lone dissenting vote, said she isn’t sure immunity is the proper way to address the problem and has concerns that this bill would send the wrong message.

Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Cashion, said he hopes the bill could be further amended so there would still be a diversion program in lieu of a citation for underage drinkers who call for assistance.

“I know we don’t want to put this [on somebody’s record], but at the same time we also have to understand that there are individuals out there who are going to abuse the system,” Contreras said.

The amendment approved by the committee also added language to attempt to address concerns of abuse by proscribing immunity for someone who calls for help just as a way of getting out of trouble.

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