ACLU to Ohio Police: Stop Charging Overdose Survivors With Criminal Offense

By Paul Gaita 03/29/17

The ACLU says the new arrest policy is unlawful and counterproductive to its drug problems.

Ohio police.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio has sent a letter to a city in central Ohio, asking it to reverse a new policy that allows police to charge individuals who need to be revived after an overdose with a first-degree misdemeanor.

Brian Hottinger, police chief of the city of Washington Court House, announced in February 2017 that his officers may cite anyone who requires naloxone (the opioid overdose antagonist) with inducing a panic—which carries a sentence of up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.

Hottinger claimed that the charges were a means of tracking overdoses in the region, which in February rose to 30, including six fatalities, in a 10-day period. The ACLU responded on March 28 with a letter to the city that labeled the arrest policy as both unlawful and counterproductive to its drug problems.

The letter, which notes that at least 12 people have been charged with inducing panic since the policy was implemented in February, underscores the array of negative consequences incurred by punishing overdose victims.

"Your practice places friends, family, and neighbors in the difficult situation of choosing between lifesaving treatment for their loved one while exposing them to criminal prosecution, or not calling medical providers and seeking alternative treatments, or simply hoping the overdose is not fatal," the letter read. "Punishing those who experience an overdose also shifts the burden of rehabilitation from the healthcare system – which is designed and equipped to treat addiction issues – to the criminal justice system, which is much less effective and much more expensive."

The letter also argues that if receiving police or emergency medical service (EMS) assistance causes harm, then any time an officer or medical professional responded to anything other than a routine situation like a traffic incident, the individuals that necessitated the response could also be charged with inducing panic.

ACLU of Ohio staff attorney Elizabeth Bonham said that the policy is, at its core, a violation of basic rights. "It's unlawful to apply the inducing panic statute to a situation like this, where the alleged panic that has been induced is merely the use of police or EMS resources by a citizen," she said.

But the Washington Court Police have stood by their decision, which they say provides assistance to both authorities and overdose victims. More significantly, it also imposes a warning to drug users. "We felt it was important to have consequences to these actions," said Lt. John Long in an interview with Ohio's WOSU in early March.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.