At the end of 2014, Pennsylvania’s new Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Immunity Law went into effect. The law provides major changes to Pennsylvania’s drug laws by providing immunity for both individuals experiencing an overdose and those who attempt to save their lives.
In an effort to encourage bystanders and/or friends of an overdosed person to intervene and try to save a life, the law outlines multiple instances where the law protects those who call for help from criminal charges. Specifically, the law provides immunity from criminal charges and prosecution for “a person who assists a person experiencing a drug overdose” by :
- transporting the person(s) experiencing an overdose to a law enforcement agency, campus office or healthcare facility and law enforcement/care providers only became aware of the incident as a result of that person’s assistance
- reporting the overdose in good faith to law enforcement and providing their own name and location to law enforcement and remained with the person needing medical attention until law enforcement arrived
In 2016, the Court determined that the law extends immunity to persons experiencing overdoses if the person who assisted them qualifies for immunity. Commonwealth v. Carontenuto, 148 A.3d 448, Super.2016. The immunity afforded by this law protects the individual from charges of possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia and/or probation or parole
However, despite the wide range of immunity granted by the law, certain crimes fall outside of the protections otherwise received by meeting the law’s requirements. Specifically, no immunity will be granted where law enforcement independently learned of the drug overdose , nor does it apply to any crime not specifically identified in the statute (i.e. drug induced homicide, theft).
Since the law’s enactment, multiple amendments have been proposed by both the House and the Senate. Most recently, in June 2017, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate proposed identical amendments that would only grant immunity if the individual participates in a drug treatment program within 30 days of the event if ordered by the parole board/court in connection with potential criminal charges. The amendment has not been voted on yet, but lawmakers and the public opinion have already indicated that the amendment will be a hot topic.
Over the past three years since the well-intentioned law was established, it has remained controversial. Some are outraged, like the community in Hermitage, PA where a woman overdosed on heroin in Buhl Park on July 25th and was resuscitated in front of children by officers and able to walk free moments later after refusing medical treatment or facing charges. Others, like Samantha Bailey, a mother who called emergency services and escorted her daughter to the hospital following an overdose in June 2016 and readily handed over drugs to medical personal to assist with treatment, are fighting for the immunity that they are supposedly entitled to under this law. Despite meeting all requirements for protection under the law and numerous letters from her attorney, Wyoming County prosecutors charged Bailey with possession. Critics of the law cite a finding by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, that indicated that hospitalizations for heroin have increased 66% statewide between 2014, when the law was enacted, and 2016. Police and lawmakers continue to be at odds in their support of the law, with legislators including Governor Tom Wolff, endorsing treatment over incarceration and some police claiming the law is ineffective in combatting the drug epidemic plaguing Pennsylvania.
Only time will tell if relatively young law will achieve its goal of assisting Pennsylvania communities in fighting drug epidemics. Across Pennsylvania the enforcement and application of the law and its immunities are uneven and often circumstantial, with some Prosecutors looking for nearly any way to grant immunity and others seeking to poke holes in the law and hold individuals accountable if they can find any loophole to get around the intent of the law. Due to the new and evolving nature of the law, many unknowing individuals are wrongfully charged due to their assistance of an overdose victim despite their immunity from prosecution. In my experiences in the areas where I’ve practiced, I’ve found that Bucks County will prosecute a case if they can find a loophole even where the person’s actions fall within the intent of the statute (twice in my experience and opinion) whereas in Montgomery County I witnesses District Attorney Kevin Steele tell a public audience that he will follow the intent of the statute even if he found a technicality that would legally permit him to prosecute someone who overdosed or assisted someone who overdosed. I do not advocate relying on this statement, but present it to contrast the different approaches in the two counties where I practice. If you are charged with a crime in relation to a drug overdose, the assistance and knowledge of an experienced criminal defense attorney can be invaluable.