News Regarding Legal Protections for Those Reporting Drug Overdoses

In 2012, the Florida Legislature passed a law called “The 911 Good Samaritan Act” (Florida Statute §893.21 (2016)).  This law was intended to protect anyone who suffers from a drug overdose, or tries to help another person experiencing a drug overdose, from being prosecuted for drug possession crimes connected to their calls to law enforcement and other rescue personnel.

The purpose behind the lawmakers’ actions here were clear: there is a public safety interest in encouraging people to seek medical attention in situations of drug overdose, without fear of arrest.  In short, the message was, “Don’t worry about getting in trouble - act immediately to seek medical in case of a drug overdose.”

However, just like many other well-intentioned and seemingly clear legislation, the meaning of the law was left for debate, as some of the terms in the actual statute remained unclear.  For example, the law requires that the reporting citizen is “acting in good faith” – what does this mean?  And, how far does the law go to protect reporters from prosecution- and when might they not be protected?  A recent case from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal helped to resolve some of these questions.

The case is called Pope v. State (1D17-2487  2018) and the facts involved a man who was charged with possessing both heroin and marijuana that were found inside his home after he contacted authorities when his friend overdosed.  The Court summarizes the facts as follows:

“In December 2016, Thomas Pope and two friends were doing heroin together at Pope’s home. One of the friends, a young woman named Ashley, overdosed and stopped breathing. Pope immediately got on the phone with 911, providing his address and seeking help. He answered the 911 operator’s questions regarding Ashley’s condition, and he followed the operator’s instructions to monitor her breathing and tilt her head to open her airway. Emergency responders quickly arrived, recognized symptoms consistent with a heroin overdose, and successfully administered a medication to counteract the effects. Ashley survived. Despite some admirable efforts to save his friend, Pope’s conduct was far from exemplary. At some point after the 911 call but before responders arrived, Pope moved Ashley to the front porch, leaving her briefly unattended. He tried to hide the heroin and rearranged things inside the home. When emergency responders arrived, he initially refused to answer the door, and when he finally did, he did nothing to help them help his friend. He denied knowing Ashley, saying he had no idea where she came from or what she had taken. He was belligerent, somewhat aggressive, and entirely uncooperative.”

Mr. Pope’s lawyers filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming he was protected by the Good Samaritan Law ( Fla. Stat. §893.21).  The trial court denied the motion, finding that although Pope initially acted in good faith in contacting the authorities, he also acted in bad faith in his subsequent actions.  Pope entered a plea and later appealed the denial of his Motion to Dismiss. 

The First District’s analysis mostly focuses on that term “good faith” in the statute.  The State, just like the trial Court, basically argued that a person must act in good faith from the time he/she requests medical assistance, all the way through the conclusion of the incident.  The appellate court disagreed, reasoning that the statute only requires good faith in requesting medical assistance, and does not require specific behavior after that. Ultimately, the First District reversed the trial court and held that Pope’s Motion to Dismiss should have been granted. 

This case is important because it shows that courts are committed to upholding the protections of the Good Samaritan Statute, increasing public safety and encouraging people to report drug-related overdoses immediately.  The opioid crisis facing our country is widespread and well-documented.  It is important to increase awareness of this Act, to inform those who are now facing criminal charges due to contraband discovered during the reporting of a drug-related overdose, and to encourage future life-saving actions, without fear of prosecution.

 

Lori Wurtzel