Good Samaritan Laws

Law makers are designing laws around saving lives, not prosecuting people. This is a good development.

  1. Pennsylvania's "Good Samaritan" law has been credited with saving the lives of people who overdose on drugs. It's an important part of the effort to contain an opioid epidemic, along with equipping police and paramedics with naloxone, addiction counseling, and getting people into drug courts in lieu of prosecuting them for low-level drug offenses. The law grants immunity from prosecution to victims of suspected overdoses and the people who call 911 on their behalf. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and 38 other states have recognized the urgency of getting people to act responsibly in these situations. The statistics are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control reported 63,600 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2016, a 21 percent increase over the year before. That number covers all drugs, but prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl make up most of the cases, accounting for the surge in fatalities. Pennsylvania had the fifth-highest rate of opioid-related deaths in 2016 -- 38 deaths per 100,000 residents, a total of 4,844. Good Samaritan laws vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania, drug users who dial 911 can expect immunity from minor drug charges, but not from more serious crimes, such as drug trafficking or firearms offenses. Nor can anyone use a "free card" to thwart an ongoing investigation, such as calling for medical help when police are at the door with a search warrant. Also, the person reporting an overdose must have a reasonable belief a person's life is in danger. Despite these balances, Pennsylvania's law had a glaring deficiency. While it offered immunity to the suspected victim and the reporter, it didn't specifically extend that protection when those are one and the same person -- when someone calls 911 to self-report an overdose. The flaw was exposed in a case in Dauphin County. Sheila Marie Lewis called 911, thinking she was overdosing, and was subsequently charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. She sought to have the charge dropped, seeking immunity under the Good Samaritan law, but was convicted in county court. The judge said the law does not apply to self-reporters, nor to people who are found not have needed immediate medical attention. She appealed to state Superior Court. That interpretation violates the legislative intent of the law, a panel of three Superior Court judges ruled last week, in overturning the conviction. The opinion, written by Judge Jack Panella of Palmer Township, noted "the act is designed to save lives by sacrificing the enforcement of minor narcotics penalties" -- including possession of drug paraphernalia. "Furthermore, excluding self-reporters from the immunity granted by the act would lead to absurd results," Panella wrote.

The judges also rejected the idea that immunity from minor drug charges disappears if it turns out that a person wasn't in mortal danger -- as long as there was a reasonable expectation of medical need.

This is just one beachhead in an addiction battle claiming thousands of American lives each year and devastating communities. But it needed to be addressed and clarified. If necessary, the Legislature should revisit its Good Samaritan law and incorporate the court's findings.

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