California’s New Good Samaritan Law Attempts to Save Lives

Blog Image Spring MarissaCalifornia Health and Safety Code, Section 11376.5 is a new law in California which aims to prevent deaths from drug overdose. The new law was enacted through Assembly Bill 472 on September 17, 2012, and became effective on January 1, 2013. The law allows a certain level of protection for people seeking medical help in the event that they or someone they know experiences a drug-related overdose. In its essence, the law, in certain circumstances, shields “good samaritans” from some types of criminal liability.

Many people may wonder why California has chosen to pass this law. Consequently, the legislature has attempted to clarify its intentions in Assembly Bill 472, the act by which this law was enacted.  The legislature states that it intends “to encourage a witness of a drug-related overdose to call 911 or seek other emergency assistance in a timely manner in order to save the life of an overdose victim.”  The legislature explains in Assembly Bill 472 that medical emergency assistance has been found to be the ideal first response in the event of a drug-related overdose.

The legislative findings declared in Assembly Bill 472 include the following facts: 1) drug overdose is the second leading cause of injury and death in the nation and 2) California has the highest number of overdose deaths per year.  Additionally, the legislature seems to be concerned about California’s youth, specifically noting that “drug and alcohol overdose morbidity and mortality are not confined to adults but also devastate California’s youth.”

Careful analysis of Health and Safety Code, Section 11376.5, and its built-in limits, shows that the law will likely achieve the legislature’s intent of saving lives, particularly among California’s youth, without giving those who use drugs a “free pass.”

The law is designed to quell some of the worry that a person who is under the influence may have about getting in trouble with law enforcement if they dial 911 to receive medical help for someone having an overdose.  The law does this by providing that, these persons, along with persons who are themselves overdosing and call for help, will not face criminal liability for being under the influence of drugs.

But the law does not stop there in quelling the fears of a potential help seeker who is also a drug user. The law also provides that persons seeking emergency medical help will not be subject to criminal liability for possessing controlled substances, their analogs, or drug paraphernalia, so long as that possession is for personal use only. Subsection (c) reiterates this limitation, stating: “[the new law] shall not affect laws prohibiting the selling, providing, giving, or exchanging of drugs, or laws prohibiting the forcible administration of drugs against a person’s will.”  Thus, anyone found to be under the influence or to possess the drugs or paraphernalia for a purpose other than personal use is not protected and can be subject to criminal liability under existing laws governing drug-related violations.

Even a preliminary analysis of the statute shows that California’s lawmakers seem to have had protection of youth populations in the forefront of their minds.  It is not hard to imagine why fears of getting into trouble with law enforcement would be a primary concern among teenagers and young adults. Additionally, teenagers and young adults would likely be the population using drugs for personal recreational use and not much else.  After all, many young people have the financial support of their parents. As such, they are unlikely to initiate drug-use with the goal of profit in mind, and they may be less likely to resort to such criminal activity to sustain a drug addiction.

Further analysis of the statute’s limits and warnings indicates that protection of youth was likely a primary factor in the mind of legislators when drafting and passing this new section of the Health and Safety Code.  For instance, the law only protects people who seek medical assistance in good faith and who do not obstruct medical or law enforcement personnel.  A young person who merely wants to save the life of a friend is not likely to have a motive to obstruct police or emergency responders.  Moreover, Subsection (d) of the statute provides that: “[n]othing in this section shall affect liability for any offense that involves activities made dangerous by the consumption of a controlled substance” and also cites various portions of the California Vehicle Code.  Thus, for example, the immunity provided by the new law will not protect anyone from criminal liability for driving while under the influence.  As youth populations may be likely to engage in unsafe conduct without considering the consequences, this warning seems appropriately aimed at them as well.

The new law attempts to strike a balance between offering protection in order to save lives and offering too much protection for those involved with using drugs or with other criminal activity.  Twice, the statute expressly provides that “[n]o other immunities or protections from arrest or prosecution for violations of the law are intended or may be inferred.”  This language provides a warning from the legislature that the statute’s immunity does not provide a basis for any other substantive right or protection, nor does it create any other kind of immunities.  In Assembly Bill 472, the legislature states that it does not intend to ”protect individuals from prosecution for any offense not specifically described…or to interfere with law enforcement protocols to secure the scene of an overdose.”  Effectively, the California legislature says: “you have been given an inch, don’t try to take a mile.”

This new law is controversial. Nonetheless, California is now the tenth state to have passed such a law.  The simple fact is that this law may very well save lives.  Whether these lives are “worth” the attempt to save them may be up for debate in the minds of some people, but in the mind of California’s legislature, the answer is a resounding yes.

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Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11376.5 (West).

2012 Cal. Legis. Serv. Ch. 338 (A.B. 472) (West).

17 Cal. Jur. 3d Criminal Law: Crimes Against Admin of Justice § 187.

Suzanne Potter, California Health Report, 911 Good Samaritan Law Passes, Healthycal.org, (Sept. 26, 2012) http://www.healthycal.org/archives/9784.