People younger than 21 in Washington state may no longer have to decide between alcohol poisoning and a minor in possession charge. There may soon be no law to deter them from calling 911 if they realize they drank a few too many shots, or to prevent them from safely transporting their blacked-out friends to the hospital.
Minors who seek medical assistance for alcohol poisoning may soon receive limited immunity from prosecution in Washington.
Washington State House Bill 1404 aims to prevent alcohol poisoning deaths by allowing minors in need of alcohol-related medical assistance to get the help they need without fear of a minor in possession charge.
The bill passed to the Washington State Senate Rules Committee after a Senate Committee on Law and Justice executive session on Tuesday, April 2. It passed in the House on March 5 with a 72-24 vote.
Immunity would also extend to minors who, acting in good faith, seek medical assistance for someone else who is experiencing alcohol poisoning. The bill was discussed in detail at a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Law and Justice on Monday, April 1.
It would only exempt minors from charges of minor in possession, and only if evidence of possession was obtained as a result of seeking medical attention. If a young person engaged in other illegal activities while drinking, they would not be immune from prosecution for those crimes, as the exemption is not grounds for suppression of evidence in other criminal charges.
Rep. Marko Liias (D-WA) is one of the bill’s five sponsors.
“[The bill] is just trying to send that message to young people that when you’re in trouble or when your friend is in trouble, call 911, get the help you need,” Liias said in Monday's hearing. “That’s the most important priority in that particular circumstance.”
Monday's hearing went well in part because of the many perspectives in favor of the bill, Liias said in an interview Tuesday.
Law officials have said the bill would not hinder law enforcement, firefighters have talked about the importance of encouraging people to call 911, substance and drug abuse prevention advocates have stressed the importance of making sure people who binge drink get help. Parents whose daughter received an MIP after calling 911 have also spoken out, Liias said in the interview.
Each of these perspectives helps explain why the bill is a common-sense approach to protect youth across the state from alcohol poisoning, Liias said. Similar laws already exist in other states, including Michigan and Texas.
A bill analysis by the Washington State House of Representatives Office of Program Research Public Safety Committee in February references alcohol poisoning statistics as important context for the proposed immunity.
Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States, and is responsible for more than 4,700 annual deaths among the country's underage youth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011 underage drinking fact sheet.
Although it is illegal for people younger than 21 to consume alcohol, people ages 12-20 drink eleven percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinking, according to the fact sheet.
On average, minors consume more drinks per occasion than adult drinkers. In 2010, minors accounted for about 189,000 emergency rooms visits for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.
Under Washington state law, a minor in possession of alcohol offense is a gross misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment in a county jail for as many as 90 days, or both fine and imprisonment. If the offender is younger than 18, the offender is subject to local sanctions which can include as many as 30 days in confinement, 12 months of community supervision, 150 hours of community restitution and a $500 fine.
Liias addressed criticisms that the bill would encourage underage drinking.
“As I chatted with the substance abuse professionals -- the folks who work on these issues every day -- and the liquor control board, they were clear that kids are drinking anyway and this law doesn’t really encourage behavior other than encouraging people to call 911 when someone is in trouble," Liias said in the interview. "Kids are going to make the decision to drink or not to drink for other reasons, not because [HB 1404] gets into law."
Evidence gathered outside of a minor's contact for medical assistance could still be used to incriminate them; seeking medical assistance would not negate charges that occurred if a police officer caught the minor using alcohol before or after the minor sought assistance. The bill's purpose is simply to avoid preventing minors from seeking medical assistance, Liias said in Monday's hearing.
A failed amendment to the bill by Ranking Minority Member Rep. Brad Klippert sought to qualify the immunity by extending it only to minors who seek medical assistance for themselves or others specifically by calling 911.
There are many ways in which people can seek medical assistance, Liias said in the interview. For example, people out of cellphone service range may flag down a police officer for help.
Liias and other supporters tried to avoid qualifying what counts as needing medical attention, he said. Because the bill doesn’t affect more severe crimes such as DUI, he wants to focus on helping people rather than incriminating them for a misdemeanor offense.
"Because we are just talking about MIP and not anything else, we left the definition of seeking medical attention fairly broad," Liias said. "We want it to be clear that if you’re trying to get help, then you’re covered, because we want people seeking help when their friends are in trouble.”
A man who lost his son to a drug overdose first contacted Liias about the bill. The man said state law now in place to allow those seeking medical attention for drug overdose is working and helping save lives. He pointed out to Liias that there are no similar allowances for people suffering from the effects of binge drinking to call 911 and get this attention.
“We want young people to know that when they call 911, the only thing that’s going to come is help, not trouble," Liias said.