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Good Samaritan laws protect some, miss others.

Good Samaritan laws are meant to save lives by providing immunity from prosecution when a layperson provides emergency assistance to an injured or ill person, and they are increasingly being written to protect people who provide—or call for—aid when someone is experiencing a drug overdose.NCSL, “Drug Overdose Immunity and Good Samaritan Laws,” June 5, 2017.

In 2018, Arizona and Idaho became the newest states to enact Good Samaritan laws pertaining to drug overdose.Arizona SB 1001 (2018); Tyler Fingert, “Good Samaritan Law Will Protect Drug Users Who Help Opioid Victims,” Cronkite News, February 5, 2018; Idaho HB 649(2018); and Dean Johnson, “Good Samaritan Law Hopes to Prevent Overdose Deaths,” KVTB, March 27, 2018. Arizona’s law protects those who report an overdose from arrest or prosecution for some drug related offenses, and Idaho’s provides limited immunity from arrest or prosecution if the person calling for aid acted in good faith and has only a small amount of drugs in their possession (or system).Arizona SB 1001 (2018); Fingert, “Good Samaritan Law Will Protect Drug Users Who Help Opioid Victims,” 2018; Idaho HB 649 (2018); and Johnson, “Good Samaritan Law Hopes to Prevent Overdose Deaths,” 2018.

Good Samaritan laws vary widely: some only provide protection for possession of certain amounts of specific drugs or from specific charges like use of a controlled substance—but not from others like trafficking or distributing drugs.Johnson, “Good Samaritan Law Hopes to Prevent Overdose Deaths,” 2018. Drug-induced homicide charges, which can be brought against those who supply the drugs used in an overdose, no matter how small the amount, are usually excluded from the list of proscribed charges—and police and prosecutors have wide discretionary powers over charging.Jack Shuler, “Overdose and Punishment,” New Republic, September 10, 2018. Thus, how effective a Good Samaritan law is at protecting people can depend entirely on the discretion of law enforcement. In Nebraska, for example, Larry Perry was arrested at the hospital in August after a friend had called to report Perry’s overdose, and first responders saw drug paraphernalia in Perry’s home.Riley Johnson, “'Good Samaritan' Law Doesn't Shield Accused Lincoln Heroin Dealer From Arrest Following Overdose,” Lincoln Journal Star, August 27, 2018. Based on that report, law enforcement obtained a search warrant and later charged Perry with several drug trafficking-related offenses.Riley Johnson, “'Good Samaritan' Law Doesn't Shield Accused Lincoln Heroin Dealer From Arrest Following Overdose,” Lincoln Journal Star, August 27, 2018. But, in the same month in Georgia, a Fulton County judge dismissed a 2015 felony murder indictment against Graham Williams, who had helped a friend inject heroin, finding that the man who died had purchased the drug himself, and Williams therefore could not be held accountable for the underlying felony of heroin distribution.Bill Rankin, “Fulton Judge Dismisses Murder Indictment In Heroin Overdose Case,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 20, 2018.

Pennsylvania is taking steps to close some of the loopholes in its Good Samaritan laws. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in March that the state’s Good Samaritan law does not just apply to people who attempt to get help for others, but those who call for help for themselves.Commonwealth v. Lewis, No. 257 MDA 2017 (Pa., March 2, 2018) (opinion). “[E]xcluding self-reporters from the immunity granted by the [Good Samaritan law] would lead to absurd results,” Judge Jack Panella wrote.Commonwealth v. Lewis, No. 257 MDA 2017 (Pa., March 2, 2018) (opinion).