FINDING HOPE: New law aims to increase 911 overdose calls, lower number of fatalities

BOISE - A new Idaho law that went into effect July 1 will change the way police and prosecutors handle cases involving drug overdoses. 

With the "Good Samaritan" law now in place, Idaho becomes the 42nd state in the country offering partial immunity to a person who calls 911 while witnessing or experiencing an overdose. Ultimately, lawmakers hope it will encourage those fearful of arrest to pick up the phone and call for help.

"I'm really hoping we're going to start seeing a reduction in these," Ada County Coroner Dotti Owens said. "Knocking on that door at 2:00 in the morning and telling someone their loved one has died, and it's from an overdose, that's pretty tough."

The law - introduced this legislative session by Boise Representative Sue Chew -  will now prevent the calling party from facing charges for being under the influence - or in possession - of a controlled substance.

Simply put: Call for paramedics and you won't go to jail.

"There are so many people that are affected by this disease called addiction, and they have so much to give, and for their lives to be snuffed out because of this, or any other kind of situation, if it's avoidable let's do it," Rep. Chew said. "Because I want the person who can save another life to have their life."

But prosecutors and police, entering the uncharted territory with unlimited "what if" situations, will likely be addressing calls on a case-by-case basis, raising endless questions. What if multiple people are present? Who gets immunity? And what if they have outstanding warrants for other crimes?

"Those are the questions we're still dealing with, because, you know, do you give immunity just to the caller? And how do you know who the caller was, and is it worth the time to investigate that?" Nampa Police Department Sgt. Tim Riha said.

 The law, as written, only applies specifically to the calling party and only defends against specific charges.

"Obviously it's new to all of us, so we're trying to decide how to implement this," Sgt. Riha said.

But states already implementing similar laws are seeing a dramatic change.

"I read a study that communities that had actually enacted this Good Samaritan Law have reduced their opioid deaths by 33 percent," Ada County Coroner Dotti Owens said. "That's a pretty significant number."

Owens says she's personally seen fatal cases where overdose victims didn't die alone. "We've had several cases that have come through here where the individual who has overdosed or was overdosing was dumped outside, and they took off, or they were cleaned up and left on the couch; so there's several that I could think of that would have been saved had they had someone who called it in."

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