House passes amnesty bill to protect intoxicated minors who call 911 for help


Daily file photo by Sarah Nelson

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (center) and state Sen. Harriet Steans (left) are two congressional sponsors of the medical amnesty bill. The bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, would give legal immunity to intoxicated minors who call 911 for an alcohol-related emergency.

Julia Jacobs, Summer Editor

A state bill providing limited legal immunity to minors who call for emergency assistance for someone who might be experiencing alcohol poisoning passed through the Illinois General Assembly last month.

First introduced to the House in 2013 by former state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Champaign), the bill failed to gain enough support to bring it to a vote until state Rep. Scott Drury (D-Highwood) re-introduced the bill in 2015. After Drury brought in a young constituent to testify in front of legislators about a time she needed emergency assistance at a party, the bill passed 74-34 in the House on June 16, after passing through the Senate previously.

Drury first took action on the issue after the parents of the young woman — a high school student at the time — told the representative their daughter’s story, in which her group of friends left her while she was unconscious from alcohol intoxication at a party and someone else called 911 to get her help.

“The reward that this Good Samaritan got was she got in trouble with the police, as did the person who needed medical help,” Drury said.

After Jakobsson retired, Drury said he re-filed the bill in the House and set out to explain to his colleagues the dangerous consequences of punishing intoxicated minors who choose to seek help for someone who may be dying from alcohol poisoning. The bill protects a person from criminal liability if they provide their full name, remain at the scene until assistance arrives and cooperate with law enforcement. Illinois would be the 30th state in the country with this type of legislation.

“Underage drinking, I don’t condone it — but it happens,” Drury said. “It happens in high schools, it happens in colleges, and we just have to acknowledge that fact and deal with it in a smart way.”

This is another bill awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature in the midst of a state budget crisis, but state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) hopes this one will pass through more easily than the pile of fiscal bills on Rauner’s desk. Steans, a sponsor of the bill, said she was shocked by the bipartisan support for the bill in the Senate and hopes Rauner will also see the its inherent logic.

“A number of states have passed something similar, and in some it has even been carried by Republican legislators — not Democrats,” Steans told The Daily. “I think there’s a growing comfort level that things like this helps save lives.”

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who was a sponsor of the bill in both its earlier and most recent forms, said she was drawn to the cause after helping pass a 2012 bill that provided legal amnesty for those who seek emergency assistance for someone overdosing on drugs and possess substances themselves. The two amnesty bills have similar framework, offering limited immunity to lawbreakers who act in good faith.

“We do a lot of things that are very abstract and very rarely do you do something where you … see the face of the person whose life you impacted,” Cassidy told The Daily. “This is one of those bills that will literally save a life.”

For legislators concerned the bill would encourage underage drinking, the sponsors ensured that the immunity provided was as narrow as possible, Steans said. Instead of granting widespread immunity to minors at a large party, the effect of the law was limited to three people, she said.

In Evanston, minors on-campus or off-campus are unlikely to get themselves in trouble by calling 911 when someone has alcohol poisoning, police Cmdr. Joseph Dugan said. Evanston police only charge minors if they’re in possession of alcohol and otherwise refer them to youth services, Dugan said. In medical emergencies, police are likely to take into account that a person did the right thing by calling for help.

“At that point it would be discretionary,” Dugan said. “Our main goal would be to make sure that the person gets the help they need — everything else would be secondary.”

Northwestern’s policy also states that students who take action in an emergency situation won’t be liable for alcohol or drug-related violations, according to the University’s Responsible Action Protocol.

However, in studying policies across the state, Drury found that police departments and institutions of higher education are not consistent in their policies, making it more likely for a tragedy to occur because minors are unsure how to act, he said. Drury said there needs to be a concrete, all-inclusive state law so minors and officers at the scene act always in individuals’ best interests.

State Rep. Laura Fine (D-Glenview), who sponsored both Jakobsson and Drury’s conception of the bill, said she believes it was the story the young woman told in front of the House Judiciary Criminal Committee that made representatives understand the gravity of the situation and the rationality of the proposed solution. If the bill is signed into law, it is necessary for minors to understand its implications for the law to affect change, Fine said.

“I think it will change things if kids understand that it is a law and they are in a situation where somebody is in trouble,” Fine told The Daily. “Instead of running away from the situation, they’ll step forward and help.”

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