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Lawmakers mull immunity for 911 calls involving drug-, alcohol-related medical emergencies

  • Emergency responder and former state representative Jenn Coffey of Andover testifies on a proposed bill to give legal immunity to those who call 911 if someone is overdosing from drugs or alcohol;  Tuesday, January 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Emergency responder and former state representative Jenn Coffey of Andover testifies on a proposed bill to give legal immunity to those who call 911 if someone is overdosing from drugs or alcohol; Tuesday, January 15, 2013.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • House Judiciary Committee member  Mike Kappler of Raymond listens to testimony on a proposed bill to give legal immunity to those who call 911 if someone is overdosing from drugs or alcohol;  Tuesday, January 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    House Judiciary Committee member Mike Kappler of Raymond listens to testimony on a proposed bill to give legal immunity to those who call 911 if someone is overdosing from drugs or alcohol; Tuesday, January 15, 2013.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Emergency responder and former state representative Jenn Coffey of Andover testifies on a proposed bill to give legal immunity to those who call 911 if someone is overdosing from drugs or alcohol;  Tuesday, January 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • House Judiciary Committee member  Mike Kappler of Raymond listens to testimony on a proposed bill to give legal immunity to those who call 911 if someone is overdosing from drugs or alcohol;  Tuesday, January 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

Backers of a bill that would grant legal immunity to anyone who calls 911 for a drug- or alcohol-related emergency described it yesterday as a Good Samaritan law that would encourage more people to seek life-saving medical treatment.

“We are losing more citizens every year to overdose than we are to car accidents,” said Jenn Coffey, an Andover emergency medical technician and former GOP state representative, during a hearing yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee. “Those deaths can be prevented. People like me can save a life, if we’re given the opportunity to.”

But some committee members questioned whether the bill is too broad, potentially extending immunity from prosecution to drug dealers and others engaged in criminal activity.

No one testified against the bill during yesterday’s hearing. But the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the bill as it’s written, said Sunapee Chief David Cahill, chairman of the association’s legislative committee.

“We’re concerned it may protect drug dealers,” Cahill said. “If there’s an issue going on, it reduces their risk and liability, and suddenly being a drug dealer in this state, there’s no discouraging if they’re immune.”

The bill, HB 118, is sponsored by Manchester Democratic Rep. Joel Winters and would grant both criminal and civil immunity to anyone who calls 911 to report a drug- or alcohol-related emergency, “for good faith conduct arising from or pertaining to the placing of the call.”

The immunity would also apply “to any person who is the subject of the 911 emergency call,” according to the bill.

New Mexico was the first state to enact such a law, in 2007, and several other states have followed suit, according to Governing magazine.

Rep. George Lambert, a Litchfield Republican, testified yesterday in support of the New Hampshire bill, calling it “a Good Samaritan law for 911” that would encourage people to call for help in cases of drug overdose or alcohol poisoning instead of worrying about whether they’ll get in trouble.

“I don’t want to have to call my lawyer before I figure out whether or not I’m going to call 911,” Lambert said.

But several committee members questioned how far the immunity would or should extend.

Rep. Lenette Peterson, a Merrimack Republican, asked whether the bill would protect adults who host an underage drinking party and call 911 because one of the attendees becomes ill; Lambert responded that “I don’t believe that is clearly the case.”

Rep. Robert Rowe, an Amherst Republican, questioned whether the law would block prosecution of someone who has a large amount of heroin and calls 911 because a companion has overdosed.

“Is that not going too far?” Rowe said.

But Coffey said the focus should be on treating and preventing addiction, not on incarceration. Providing life-saving medical treatment to someone in distress, she said, should take precedence over locking up a drug dealer.

“What’s more important: filling your jail, or saving a life?” Coffey said. “What’s more important: making a phone call to mom and dad and saying, ‘Your son is here, we saved their life, come get them, here are some resources to get them help,’ or calling them and saying, ‘I’m sorry, it was too late, you need to plan a funeral?’ I’ve seen both.”

The Judiciary Committee heard about a half-hour of testimony yesterday and will meet at a later date to debate the bill, potentially amend it and make a recommendation to the full House.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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