Calling 911 During An Overdose Won't Lead To Arrest, NYPD Says

By Paul Gaita 06/29/17
The 911 Good Samaritan Law prevents people who call for help during an overdose from being prosecuted for a controlled substance offense.
a group of New York City police officers

As overdose rates from opioid drug use continue to climb across the United States, the New York Police Department (NYPD) is launching a public service campaign aimed at informing the public about its 911 Good Samaritan Law, which allows state residents to call 911 if they or someone they witness is experiencing a drug or alcohol overdose without fear of arrest.

The ad campaign, which will be displayed on social media and urban transit (subways, buses and ferries), will be concentrated in boroughs and areas like the Bronx and Staten Island, which have high levels of drug use. According to Police Commissioner James O'Neill, the purpose of the campaign is to not only help New Yorkers "understand the protections of the Good Samaritan Law," but to also save lives. More than 1,300 residents died from drug overdose in 2016, which was the highest rate of death from opioids on record.

The 911 Good Samaritan Law (NYS Penal Law 220.78) was enacted in 2011 to prevent any person who "seeks health care for someone who is experiencing a drug or alcohol overdose or other life-threatening medical emergency," or who "seeks health care for himself or herself or is the subject of such a good faith request" from being charged or prosecuted for a controlled substance offense.

While anyone, regardless of age, is eligible for protection by the 911 Good Samaritan Law, literature from the New York State Department of Health clearly outlines that there are exceptions, including criminal possession of eight ounces or more of a controlled substance (known as an A-I felony); sale or intent to sell controlled substances, open arrest warrants and violation of probation or parole.

However, individuals are protected under the 911 Good Samaritan Law if they are found to possess eight ounces or less of a controlled substance (known as an A-II felony), alcohol in a case of underage drinking, any quantity of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and shared drugs. For charges less than A-II felonies, calling 911 can be used as a defense against drug sale charges, as long as the defendant doesn't have prior convictions for A-I, A-II or B felony drug sales (which is criminal possession with intent to sell any narcotic weighing up to a half-ounce). In the case of A-I and A-II felony convictions, a 911 call can also be used to reduce the length of prison sentences.

Currently, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of Good Samaritan law, as well as immunity from violations of pretrial, probation or parole conditions. Exactly which offenses are covered varies from state to state, but many states provide defendants who do not qualify for Good Samaritan protection with access to a diversion program or drug treatment court, while 18 states weigh the use of 911 in good faith as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

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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.