If you have driven on Buffalo’s I-190 in recent weeks, you probably are familiar with the Department of Health’s new billboard campaign to promote New York’s “Good Samaritan Law.”
Unlike the fictional Massachusetts law that sent Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer to jail for mocking a robbery victim in Seinfeld’s famous series finale, New York’s Good Samaritan Law provides limited protection to victims or witnesses who seek emergency services for potential drug or alcohol overdoses, or other life-threatening emergencies. While the billboards have certainly raised awareness of the Good Samaritan Law, they leave several important limitations unaddressed, potentially leading Good Samaritans to believe that the law protects them further than it actually does.
Shield from being “Charged” or “Prosecuted” for Possession.
The law provides a shield from being charged or prosecuted, but only for possession of controlled substances, marijuana, paraphernalia, or alcohol in the case of minors. It does not shield someone from being charged or prosecuted for offenses involving a sale of controlled substances or marijuana. It does not prohibit responding officers from arresting or detaining a witness or victim to investigate potential criminal conduct related to the incident. It does not apply to certain felony possession quantities.
Affirmative Defense to Prosecution for Criminal Sales
Again, the law does not prevent a person from being charged or prosecuted for the sale of controlled substances or marijuana. However, the law does provide a safe haven from conviction. The statute allows a Good Samaritan to assert the law as an affirmative defense to the criminal sale of controlled substances or marijuana, which unlike the possession shield, means that a Good Samaritan would still be required to appear in Court and prove their defense. The defense is unavailable to victims or Good Samaritans who have certain prior felony convictions for drug offenses, or where the sale in question would constitute one of a certain list of felonies.
Mitigating Factor in Certain Felony Prosecutions
For the certain felony possession and sale exceptions set forth above, the law only protects victims or witnesses by requiring Courts to consider the act of seeking health care as a mitigating factor, to lessen the punishment of a criminal conviction.
While the Good Samaritan law provides limited protection for the incident leading to emergency medical treatment, it does not prevent seizure of criminal items. Nor does it prevent law enforcement or prosecutors from using evidence in prosecutions for other crimes, such as parole violations or unrelated transactions of controlled substances.
New York’s Good Samaritan Law is a useful tool to prevent unnecessary deaths because of victims and witnesses’ fear of getting in trouble for their involvement in overdoses or related medical emergencies. While total immunity would theoretically provide more incentive for more people to seek emergency services, the limitations on immunity are essential for law enforcement to continue to enforce drug laws against “Bad Samaritans,” who may otherwise try to use the law as a loophole.
In an ideal world, people would put aside their own interest to save another’s life, regardless of whether they are immune from prosecution. However, it is important that citizens are educated about the law’s limitations, as it cannot be effective if people feel misled or distrustful of the program as a whole.