ANNAPOLIS, Maryland –– A clarification to Maryland’s 2015 Good Samaritan Law, to protect the victim of a drug or alcohol overdose from criminal prosecution, passed the House and is making its way through the state Senate.
The way the law is written now, the overdose victim would need to “reasonably believe” they’re suffering from a medical emergency to be guaranteed immunity in the courts. But it’s unrealistic to rely on an overdose victim to call on their own behalf, said Rachelle Yeung of Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates for responsible and legal drug use.
“It’s impossible to reasonably believe anything about yourself if you’re not conscious,” Yeung told lawmakers on March 6. “It doesn’t make sense for the person who is overdosing to be required to (be aware of) their own medical state.”
Witnesses who seek help are protected, which would not change under the new law. But witnesses are often deterred from doing so, Yeung said, out of fear of incriminating the “disabled victim” or getting caught in the legal system.
Advocates said removing “reasonably believes” from the language defining the overdose victim will quell the confusion.
“Courts are having trouble discerning the rule,” said sponsor Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery. “This is just a clarification piece.”
The basis of the legislation, Senate bill 625 and House bill 799, sponsored by Delegate Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s, is the same: If incriminating evidence of a drug crime is obtained solely through the drug incident, the evidence can’t be used for a criminal arrest, charge, or prosecution for specified violations.
In the case of evidence unrelated to drugs – possession of a gun or stolen items, for example – such material could still be used against someone in court for other crimes.
This bill makes a clear distinction between the person with reasonable belief of an overdose, and the overdose victim, and protects both. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 40 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted some form of a Good Samaritan Law to protect both parties.
To be sure, there are prosecutors who have already been interpreting Maryland’s 2015 law as it was designed to be implemented.
“The way they change the law would be consistent with how I’ve always applied the statute,” said Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Wes Adams.
Adams recalled one such case, in which a mother called 9-1-1 on behalf of her overdosing son, who was on probation. The probation officer reported a crime, but Adams dropped the case, as evidence came from the mother’s call for help.
In general, Adams said, “clarifying language is always helpful.”
Nick Iliff, a trial attorney for the public defender’s office in Caroline County, Maryland, can attest to that. He said he currently has two cases “specifically implicated by misinterpretations” of the law.
This clarification, in and of itself, is important, Smith told the Capital News Service. But the rising overdose death toll in the state adds urgency.
Drug- and alcohol-overdose deaths jumped from 1,041 in 2014 to 1,259 in 2015, according to the Maryland Department of Health’s data. It eclipsed 2,000 in 2016 and by the end of the third quarter of last year — the most recent statistics available — there were 1,705 deaths.
“When you talk about the violence in Baltimore City with guns, (consider that more people) died of opioids (in 2017),” Smith said.
There were 523 opioid-related deaths in Baltimore City through the first nine months of 2017, according to the Maryland Department of Health. There were 299 shooting deaths last year, according to a tally by The Baltimore Sun.
“This is definitely a crisis and I think this (law) would help do a small part.”
The last step is the awareness campaign, said Nancy Rosen-Cohen, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. She believes eliminating “the arrest fear factor” is a critical step to improving the situation.
“We just want the community at large, as well as law enforcement, to understand that the person overdosing will be protected from arrest,” Rosen-Cohen said. “It’s just about educating the public that there’s a possible solution to working with this whole epidemic. This is just a piece of the puzzle.”