Centre County District Attorney Argues Against Drug Overdose Immunity
Everyone is aware of the opioid crisis and significant increase in overdose deaths in the United States. The Pennsylvania legislature has tried to encourage people to call for medical assistance for people that were suffering from an overdose by passing a law that was supposed to protect both the caller and the person suffering from an overdose from most prosecutions. Clearly, the spirit of the law was to place a greater emphasis on the protection of human life over the prosecution for a violation of the law. Everyone understands that breaking the law is illegal, but the law was intended to show that the value of human life trumps prosecution of a non-violent drug possession offense.
Limited Application of Overdose Law
In a recent Centre County case, captioned Commonwealth v. Gordon, a judge was required to review application of the Pennsylvania Drug Overdose Immunity Law. A father received information that his daughter had been using drugs and was suffering from a drug overdose event. Being a concerned father, he called 911, and the police were dispatched along with emergency medical personnel. When the police arrived, they found that the daughter was in possession of drugs and related paraphernalia. The daughter received medical treatment and survived. Surprisingly, the daughter was also charged with misdemeanor Possession of a Controlled Substance under 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(16) and Possession of Drug Paraphernalia under 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(32).
I suspect that most people are surprised that the daughter was charged because they assumed that the immunity or Good Samaritan law would have prevented the filing and prosecution of criminal charges. The daughter’s defense attorney was also surprised, and he filed a pretrial motion and sought a dismissal of the charges based upon the immunity law. The Centre County District Attorney argued against the dismissal and took a very literal interpretation of the law. The overdose law, found at 35 P.S. § 780-113.7, actually contains a provision that states that the caller must have “remained with the person needing immediate medical attention until a law enforcement officer . . . or emergency services personnel arrived.” In this case, the father was not present with his daughter when he called 911. Instead, a second daughter was present and had contacted the father for guidance about what to do. The second daughter informed the father about the overdose, and it was the father that made the adult decision and sought medical assistance. Sadly, the prosecutor argued that the immunity law didn’t apply because the father was not present at the scene of the incident. Had the second daughter, the one that was present on the scene, called 911, then immunity would have applied. However, because a daughter called her father for guidance, and because the father took immediate action, immunity didn’t apply.
Most people probably presumed that the law in this case would be interpreted in a manner to promote the preservation of life, but, regrettably, it was not. A prosecutor in this situation could have exercised prosecutorial discretion and dismissed the charges to advance the spirit of the law, which is to encourage people to call for help. Instead, the prosecutor found a loophole to argue that the law didn’t apply. While I am sure that the father in this case is happy that his daughter is alive, I suspect that he may have trouble sleeping at night as he knows that his call for help has his daughter facing criminal charges. If his daughter is convicted, she will face a sentence that will include a mandatory license suspension, probation or jail time, and payment of fines, costs, and fees that will probably exceed $1,000.00. The misdemeanor drug-related criminal record and lack of a license will also make it more difficult to keep or find a job. Now the father is left second-guessing his decision to call for help while also probably driving his daughter around and providing financial assistance.