By MICHAEL FROST
ANNAPOLIS - Advocates of a "good Samaritan" bill Wednesday said it would encourage people to seek help for those suffering from drug or alcohol overdoses, but critics expressed concern that it would provide immunity for a wide array of crimes.
The proposed legislation would offer limited immunity for both the person making the call and the one experiencing the overdose, but would not protect callers from prosecution if they provided the drugs or alcohol to the victim.
"It's plain and simple. This bill saves lives," said Delegate Kriselda Valderrama, D-Prince George's, the lead sponsor of the bill.
In 2007, New Mexico passed similar legislation, becoming the first state in the nation to do so. The House of Delegates passed an amended version of the bill last year that did not make it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Two proponents of the legislation used personal experiences to illustrate its merits.
Dr. Daniel Reardon testified that his son, Daniel Reardon Jr., died as a result of heavy drinking at a fraternity initiation at the University of Maryland in 2002. Fraternity members delayed calling 911 to avoid exposing alcohol violations, he said, something the bill could have prevented.
"I believe this would have saved my son's life," he said.
Lana Dreyfuss said she nearly died from a heroin overdose more than 20 years ago when her "so-called friends" left her in a restaurant bathroom. She said she wouldn't be here today if a worker hadn't found her and called 911.
"When you are actively using drugs or alcohol, and one of your friends or acquaintances seems to be having problems ... your friends usually leave the scene very quickly, mainly because they're concerned about their own safety," Dreyfuss said.
In 2005, 33,541 people died of drug-induced causes in the United States, which represented an 8.7 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network, a public health surveillance system, said in a 2006 report that more than 1.7 million emergency visits for treatment were associated with some form of substance misuse or abuse.
While critics were careful not to express opposition to the intent of the bill, they voiced concern about its possible implications.
Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, said he was worried the bill would provide a "get-out-of-jail-free card" for certain crimes.
Simmons particularly objected to a section of the bill that states that callers could not be "detained on an outstanding warrant for another nonviolent crime." He said that since "non-violent" crimes were not defined anywhere in the bill, those protected could include the drug kingpins themselves.
William Katcef, assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County, echoed Simmons' concerns.
Katcef, who testified on behalf of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, said that exemptions could also include crimes such as sex offense of a minor, burglary, and second-degree assault, and would also apply to the person who overdosed.
"This is really an immunity bill," he said.
Proponents of the bill said some people would still be too scared of prosecution to seek help. They offered to work with members of the committee—and Katcef himself—to craft a bill that would address the concerns that had been raised.
Lori Albin, director of legislation for the Office of the Public Defender, put it in simple terms.
"This is about trying to get one person to stay," she said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.