“Good Samaritan” Laws Intended to Help Drug Overdose Victims May Not Have the Desired Effect

syringeAccidental drug overdoses are a major cause of death in the U.S. The class of drugs known as opioids, which includes many prescription painkillers, is reportedly responsible for most of the increase in overdose deaths in many parts of the country. Since these drugs are legally categorized as controlled substances, people may hesitate to seek medical attention for themselves or others, for fear of arrest and criminal charges. More than half of the states in the U.S. have enacted “9-1-1 Good Samaritan” laws, which shield people from criminal liability for minor drug possession if they go, or take someone, to a hospital or another medical facility because of an overdose. Texas is not among the states that have enacted this type of law, but even in some states that have, some police departments are reportedly simply finding different ways to charge people with criminal offenses.

Texas law establishes penalties of varying levels of severity for the possession of a controlled substance (POCS), depending on the type and amount of controlled substance involved. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.115 et seq. A person is not subject to criminal liability if they have a valid prescription for the controlled substance in their possession, unless they have far more in their possession than is authorized by their doctor. Texas does not have many other exceptions from liability for POCS, and it does not have a 9-1-1 Good Samaritan law.

At least 37 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 9-1-1 Good Samaritan laws. Ohio’s POCS statute, for example, does not apply to a person who, “in good faith…seeks or obtains medical assistance for another person who is experiencing a drug overdose,” or “who experiences a drug overdose and…seeks medical assistance for that overdose.” Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2925.11(B)(2)(a)(viii), (B)(2)(b). The purpose of this exception is to encourage people to call for help or go to the hospital in the event of an overdose.

Many in the law enforcement community view drug users, who are essentially the bottom of the illegal drug supply chain, as a means of pursuing charges against people higher up the chain. Applying legal pressure on a drug user encourages them to identify their supplier, and so on. 9-1-1 Good Samaritan laws arguably require police to adopt new tactics, since it prevents them from pressuring drug users who come forward by seeking medical help.

This conflict between the intent of a 9-1-1 Good Samaritan law and police investigative strategies seems to have come to a head in one Ohio town. Police in Washington Court House are reportedly charging people who seek medical attention for overdoses with the misdemeanor offense of “inducing panic,” since they are immune from POCS charges. This offense includes “caus[ing] serious public inconvenience…by…[c]ommitting any offense, with reckless disregard of the likelihood [of] serious public inconvenience or alarm.” Ohio Rev. Code § 2917.31(A)(3). Local police defend this practice by saying it is necessary to track the number and rates of overdoses. Critics say it will discourage people from seeking help, meaning even more fatal overdoses are likely to occur.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Board-certified drug crime attorney Michael J. Brown has defended people against alleged charges in the state and federal courts of West Texas since 1992. Contact us online or at (432) 687-5157 today to schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled criminal justice advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Accidental Overdose Could Lead to Much More than Drug-Related Charges in Some States, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Lawsuits Challenge Police Use of Field Drug Testing Kits, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Appellate Court Decision Addresses Conflict Between Federal and State Medical Marijuana Laws, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Photo credit: Mark Oniffrey (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.