— Certain underage drinkers would have immunity from citations for minor consumption if they are seeking medical attention for a drunk companion under legislation moving forward in the Minnesota House and Senate.
The “medical amnesty” bill is a top priority of Minnesota student organizations who believe it could lead to quicker calls to 911 when someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning or has sustained injuries or has been sexually assault. The legislation survived committee deadlines at the state Capitol despite some concern from Minnesota sheriffs and at least one prosecutor.
Mankato’s history of underage drinking deaths came up in one House hearing on the legislation last month after former Mankato Director of Public Safety Jim Franklin, now the executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, expressed doubts about the bill.
“This does start us down a slippery slope of where do we go next in sanctioning what is criminal behavior,” said Franklin, who was Mankato police chief for seven years.
The House bill makes a person immune from a citation for underage drinking, which is a misdemeanor typically carrying a fine of about $100, if the person calls 911 to report that he or she or another person is in immediate need of medical assistance. The person receiving the medical assistance is also immune from underage drinking citations.
Up to two other underage drinkers can also gain immunity if they remain on the scene to assist until help arrives and give their names and cooperate with responding officers.
Franklin worried that young drinkers would attempt to abuse the proposed law when an officer arrives to bust up a party. He also wondered if underage drinkers who are stopped in a vehicle could claim they were taking one of the occupants to the emergency room.
Rep. John Lesch, a Democrat and St. Paul city prosecutor, had similar concerns.
“I’ve prosecuted these for going on 12 years now, and students are extraordinarily creative,” Lesch said.
Rep. Tony Cornish, a retired law enforcement officer and co-sponsor of the immunity bill, suggested Lesch’s worries are overblown.
“Once the cop shows up at the scene, it’s too late to come out and fabricate the story,” said Cornish, R-Good Thunder.
Cornish also saw some irony in a former Mankato chief opposing the bill.
“Mankato has a real problem with this,” Cornish said.
Current Director of Public Safety Todd Miller supports the motives behind the legislation but is concerned that it be carefully crafted.
“That in itself is probably a good thing,” Miller said. “... I’m in favor of the concept, but I’m a little bit concerned with how its implemented.”
Minnesota State University health educator Lori Marti is a strong supporter of the bill, although she would like to see an educational component added.
Already, MSU is conducting a pilot program aimed at preparing students to recognize the symptoms of an alcohol overdose and to make the right choice to help someone who might be in danger.
The decision to call the authorities or take someone to the ER can be a difficult one to make, according to Marti.
“They don’t want to get their friends in trouble, they don’t want to get in trouble, and they’re not sure what the consequences will be,” she said.
The legislation has cleared all necessary committees in the House and Senate, where Mankato Sen. Kathy Sheran is a co-sponsor. The House bill is more limited, providing immunity only in cases where 911 is called. The Senate provides that, plus immunity for underage drinkers seeking assistance for themselves or another person at a medical facility or detoxification facility.