Thursday January 24, 2013

DAVE GRAM

Associated Press

MONTPELIER -- Key law enforcement and health officials on Wednesday endorsed a bill that would give immunity from prosecution on drug charges to some 911 callers who report a friend is overdosing and in danger of death.

Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen said they hope the legislation will reduce the number of drug overdose deaths, not to condone drug use. In 2012, 73 people died in Vermont from drug overdoses.

‘That's obviously a significant public health problem," Chen told the House Judiciary Committee, adding that drug overdose deaths often rival traffic fatalities in Vermont in claiming lives.

Several committee members have sponsored the legislation to create qualified immunity from criminal charges or a finding of violation of parole or probation terms for people who might otherwise be slow to call for help for an overdosing friend for fear of being busted themselves.

"We want to incentivize people in that scenario to call 911, to bring ‘em to the ER, to get help to save lives," Donovan said after the hearing. "As Commissioner Chen said, these are preventable deaths."

Donovan cited the case of Phat Nguyen, a Minnesota man who was sharing drugs with friends while visiting Vermont in 2007 and ended up going to prison after one of them died.

The bill would establish an affirmative defense in such cases, meaning that defendants -- or their lawyers -- would have to argue in court that they should be excused from prosecution because it was their call to save a friend that brought them into contact with law enforcement.

Donovan told the committee that he would want to see the burden of proof be on defendants, who would have to convince a jury that they feared for someone's life when making the call, and not on the state to prove the defendants' story didn't hold up.

Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he expects he will support the measure as well.