It is unknown how many people have died from lack of medical assistance during an overdose due to others on scene not calling for help for fear of getting arrested.
A law signed by Gov. Eric Greitens in July now protects from arrest, prosecution or convictions those who call for EMS assistance during an overdose.
The law came into play in Franklin County for the first time Sept. 19, when a couple fatally overdosed on chemically-laced synthetic heroin in their home in St. Clair.
According to St. Clair Police Chief Bill Hammack, officers and St. Clair EMS responded to two suspected heroin overdoses at 5:01 a.m. for two people in cardiac arrest. They were both pronounced dead at the scene.
Tests indicated the drug mixture included U-47700, also called Pink, which is about eight times stronger than morphine.
There were two other adults living at the residence, but Hammack would not comment on their status evoking the good samaritan law.
Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Bob Parks said he has spoken with local police chiefs and the county narcotics unit about the bill and says as far as he’s concerned all cases from Aug. 28 forward will fall under the new law. He will not be dismissing any cases from before it took effect.
“It is very specific,” Parks said. “There are only a few things protected under the good samaritan clause —possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of an imitation controlled substance.”
He added the law does not cover any outstanding warrants or other crimes that officers on scene might find during an investigation.
“This is not an overall blanket,” he said. “If you have 10 pounds of marijuana in a house or a kilo of meth and are trafficking, you’re not going to get off just because you called EMS.”
Although the bill will make his and law enforcement’s jobs more challenging,Parks thinks once word of the protections hits the streets, it will result in more people calling for help, but he’s not sure how long it will last once they realize they can still go to jail for other offenses.
“I think you will see more calls for help in the beginning, but who knows if they will taper off in six months,” Parks said. “This is all too new, I just don’t know.”
He did say if an investigation does find someone doesn’t call for help, that would be a prosecutable crime in and of itself.
“You’re not in Sunday School class if you’re involved with an overdose,” Parks said. “We don’t want people to spend half an hour cleaning a scene before they call. We want them to get the person overdosing help. We’re not going to prosecute them for saving someone’s life.”
The original purpose of the law was to save lives by encouraging those in overdose situations to call for help without fear of getting into trouble, but even with good intentions, Sheriff Steve Pelton says it make the job of law enforcement more challenging.
“You have to put life first and this might prompt people to do something,” he said. “On the other hand, you want to bring justice to a family.”
Pelton said he’s concerned about the vagueness of the law because those involved in the potential criminal acts could simply lie that they took interventions to prevent the overdose and be immune for prosecution.
“This is something new that all of us in law enforcement are dealing with,” he said. “I’ve had some talks with Bob Parks on how we are going to apply this in the county. He will have to give us direction.”
Parks said the new law is something he can work with and law enforcement will still have options, but they will have to take the extra steps and be more vigilant.
“This bill caught everybody by surprise because we didn’t think it would pass,” he said. “I only enforce the laws, I don’t make them. If people don’t like it they can call their senator or representative. I’m going to enforce it the way it is written.”
The prosecutor also stressed what he considers the biggest drawback of the new law.
In many cases when someone is arrested after overdosing or being involved in an overdose, incarceration is the best thing for them.
“My biggest complaint is people usually don’t get help until they are in the system,” Parks said. “We can save someone two or three times with Narcan. They are taken to the hospital then they are back on the streets.”
He said the hidden benefit to making arrests is getting people help, which may be lost under the new law
“Our goal isn’t just to throw people in jail or prison,” Parks said. “If they are in the system they can get the drug treatment they can’t get, or won’t seek, on the outside.”
The good samaritan clause is a small, four paragraph inclusion as part of a much larger 33-page bill (SB 501) which included 14 other revisions to existing Missouri law.
It passed the Senate unanimously with State Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, among those voting yes.
A bill with identical language (HB 294) passed through the House of Representatives with yes votes from local State Reps. Justin Alferman, Kirk Mathews and Nathan Tate.
The governor signed the bill July 14, and it became law Aug. 28.