Immunity From Drug Prosecution In Exchange for Saving a Life

By Vince Lattanzio
|  Friday, Dec 6, 2013  |  Updated 5:29 PM EDT
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Immunity Law Seeks to Save Lives During Drug Overdoses

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David Massi’s life could have been saved.

After partying in Delaware County, Pa. one Friday night last January, the 27-year-old went back to a friend’s apartment and decided to get a heroin fix. However, the drugs were too much for his body and he overdosed. Instead of calling for help, the friends bolted.

"They both left and left him there to die," said Lynne Massi, his aunt. "He was just left there on the floor and it’s just horrible. This drug is just horrible."

When his father found him hours later, David was still alive, but brain dead. He eventually died in the hospital after being taken off of life support.

Lynne believes the friends, one who has since died over an overdose himself, were afraid to call 911 for fear of being arrested.

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So earlier this year, the 53-year-old mother of three and member of drug awareness and recovery group Kacie’s Cause, decided something should be done to prevent further deaths.

She asked Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan to help create legislation giving immunity to drug users who get medical attention for someone who overdoses. For Hogan, it was a no-brainer.

"If someone is there with another person who is overdosing, and they call 911 and wait until help arrives, we’re not going to prosecute them," Hogan said. "Knowing that we wouldn’t prosecute, but realizing that a lot of people don’t know that, we wanted to get the legal language in there."

The DA took his case to his counterparts across the Commonwealth during The Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association’s summer summit and gained support for the measure. Hogan then went to Pa. State Senator Dominic Pileggi (R-Pa. 9th) and the two drafted a Good Samaritan amendment to the state’s current drug law.

"This is very clearly about saving lives and the primary thrust of this is to save lives where medical attention can help someone who is unable to help themselves because of a drug overdose," Pileggi said. "Weighing that against minor criminal offenses relating to drug possession is clearly a very positive way and a really beneficial way to go."

Under the legislation, in order to be granted immunity, a person must contact 911, provide their information and stay with the overdosing individual until help arrives. They can also take the person to a hospital, but have to provide their information to authorities. Officials say, however, the law is crafted to ensure the immunity is not abused. Those who call for help, must be first to call and can’t contact authorities after help has arrived. It also won’t apply to drug dealers.

"We do not want to immunize the dealers," Hogan says. "The legislation is set up so that we’re not helping the dealer who supplied a deadly amount of heroin to a person."

Use of heroin and other opioid drugs like oxycodone and vicodin has spiked in recent years – resulting in an increased number of overdoses and deaths. Health and law enforcement officials in major cities and suburban and rural towns across the state and country have reported issues with opioid drug prevalence. NBC10.com has reported about a number of overdose deaths and addiction issues throughout the region recently.

“Everybody has seen the spike in heroin overdoses and heroin overdose deaths in our region over the past two years,” Hogan said. “That supply is reaching ever deeper in not just our inner cities but into the suburban and rural areas.”

Pa. already has several other Good Samaritan laws on its books. A 2011 addition to the state’s liquor law offers immunity to underage teens who call for help in cases where someone needs medical attention.

Both New Jersey and Delaware also recently passed drug overdose immunity laws. Rocker Jon Bon Jovi applauded the N.J. legislation, which became law just a few months after his own daughter survived a heroin overdose. Stephanie Bongiovi’s overdose occurred in New York, which also has an immunity law on the books, and charges against her and a friend were dropped.

The Pa. amendment received unanimous, bipartisan approval in the Pa. Senate Judicial Committee and was passed up to the full Senate during a vote this week. Pileggi hopes to see the law approved by the full General Assembly by the Spring of 2014.

While it may turn somewhat of a blind eye to drug use and minor drug possession, saving a life is the ultimate goal, say all involved.

"The people who are using can’t help themselves. They need to know that we understand that you’re using. We’re not judging you that you’re using," Lynne said. “But if you’re using…that they know that they can call 911 and save this person’s life and they will not be in trouble."

As for tracking results, Hogan says that will be difficult since people will not be arrested or charged with a crime. All agree, though, that preventing just one death will be worth it.

"I believe 100-percent in my heart, if this law was in effect, that my nephew would be alive,” Lynne says. “I don’t want it to happen to anybody."


Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, vince.lattanzio@nbcuni.com or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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