Immunity Bill Could Curb Alcohol Tragedies

The Columbus Dispatch Editorial Staff - Friday June 12, 2015 5:00 AM

It would best if young people didn’t drink alcohol at all before age 21, but the reality is that many do. And, tragically, many end up dying or injured because their intoxicated friends are too scared to summon help.

House Bill 201, introduced last month, is a practical response to this problem, granting narrowly tailored immunity from prosecution to underage drinkers who call police for emergency medical help or to report a crime.

No one should be so worried about being prosecuted that he chooses not to seek help when someone else is in trouble. As Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle noted, “We have much better things to do than to charge people who are in a medical emergency.” Police know this, but kids probably don’t.

The new bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Michael Stinziano, D-Columbus, and Jonathan Dever, R-Cincinnati, could send a clear message to young people: First, that if they drink, they are placing themselves at risk; second, that it’s safe to summon help for someone else, even if they’ve been drinking themselves.

About 4 in 5 college students drink alcohol, and half of those engage in binge drinking. These statistics from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show what results: Roughly 1,825 college students die and nearly 600,000 are injured each year because of drinking. And more than 97,000 students a year are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Stinziano represents a district with 90,000 students on seven college campuses, including Ohio State University, Columbus College of Art and Design, Capital University and Columbus State Community College. This bill is his second attempt.

The first one, cosponsored in late 2013, stalled in committee and never got a chance to have a floor vote.

If this occurs again, it would be a tragedy waiting to happen. However, his co-sponsor then was Rep. Cliff Rosenberger, now speaker of the House.

Stinziano limited his 2013 bill to those who report an emergency involving alcohol, fearing that adding illegal drug use would open a can of worms.

This no longer is an issue: Earlier this month, a bipartisan team of lawmakers announced their intent to pass a separate “Good Samaritan” bill so people wouldn’t fear being arrested on drug charges when seeking emergency help for someone who has overdosed.

Stiniziano's and Dever’s bill, though specific to alcohol, certainly seems to be in the spirit of the broader immunity effort sweeping the legislature. One mistake in judgment shouldn’t be compounded by a far-greater mistake.

The new bill also aims to address concerns such as those by the Athens police chief. Pyle worries that kids caught with alcohol could tell police they were just about to call in a medical emergency.

Under H.B. 201, immunity from prosecution would be extended only if police were made aware of the underage drinking because they were asked for help.

And that person would have to use his real name and stay with the victim until help arrived.

Ohio should join 21 other states and the District of Columbia that have alcohol-amnesty bills on the books.