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Good Samaritan law protects drugs users from prosecution, Md. court says

Immunity applies to possession offenses, judges say

A billboard designed to highlight public awareness in Anne Arundel County tracks the annual toll as of April 30, 2018. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A billboard designed to highlight public awareness of heroin overdoses in Anne Arundel County tracks the annual toll as of April 30, 2018. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland’s Good Samaritan Law protects from drug possession prosecution not only those who request medical assistance for a suspected overdose but also those for whom help is sought, the state’s second-highest court ruled Wednesday in overturning two heroin convictions.

The statute – found at Section 1-210 of the Criminal Procedure Article – states that a prosecution cannot be brought against individuals found in possession of drugs “solely” because law enforcement responded to a call for medical help, regardless of whether the possessor placed the call or received the assistance, the Court of Special Appeals stated in its reported 3-0 decision.

“The overarching purpose of CP Section 1-210 is to save lives by encouraging people to call for medical assistance when a person is believed to be suffering from a drug overdose,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote for the court. “(T)o construe that statute not to protect passive recipients of medical assistance would be inconsistent with the General Assembly’s stated goal of saving lives by encouraging people to call for help because a person who suspects that another is overdosing might be deterred from seeking help by fear of the legal repercussions for the recipient of medical aid.”

However, the court said the immunity has limits and applies only when the sole reason officers were present was because they responded to a call for medical assistance and not for another reason, such as to execute a warrant. The immunity also applies only to the simple drug possession offenses listed in the statute and not to the more serious crimes of drug distribution, the court added.

“Section 1-210 is not a get-out-of-jail free card,” Nazarian wrote.

“The legislature struck a balance between prosecuting minor drug crimes and encouraging reporting of suspected overdoses,” Nazarian added. “Section 1-210 does not prohibit police from conducting searches and seizures of evidence – to the contrary, it anticipates that evidence will be seized as officers and medical professionals arrive at the scene and deliver medical care. If they find evidence that supports charges not covered by the immunity provisions of Section 1-210, officers are free to arrest on and prosecute those charges in the normal course.”

In its decision, the court said Damian Gerety and Briana Antkowiak were wrongfully prosecuted because Anne Arundel County police found them in a Linthicum Heights parking lot with heroin solely because of a concerned bystander’s 911 call seeking medical help for the “sleeping” couple suspected of being “really high” in a parked car at about 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2019.

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Brian Saccenti, who represented Gerety and Antkowiak on appeal, stated via email Thursday that “the court’s opinion construes the Good Samaritan Law in a way that will encourage people to call 911 when they suspect an overdose, which in turn will save lives.”

The Maryland Office of Attorney General did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the court’s decision.

Gerety and Antkowiak, who declined the unsolicited medical assistance, agreed to the prosecution’s in-court representation that the drugs were found in their car but pleaded not guilty based on the Good Samaritan Law.

The presiding Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge, however, rejected the Good Samaritan defense, agreeing with the state that the immunity provision did not apply because no actual medical emergency existed. The judge noted that Gerety was well enough to drive the car from Dunkin’ Donuts across the street to a Checkers restaurant between the time the 911 call was placed and the officers’ response.

The judge sentenced Gerety and Antkowiak to the 101 days they had already served in jail.

In overturning the convictions, the Court of Special Appeals said the Good Samaritan Law requires not an actual medical emergency but only the caller’s “reasonable belief” that a drug-related health emergency exists.

The reasonable belief requirement “encourages drug users and bystanders alike to call 911 at the first sign of distress without fear that if they are mistaken about the extent of the emergency, that they could face criminal consequences for minor drug and alcohol offenses,” Nazarian wrote.

Nazarian was joined in the opinion by Judges Christopher B. Kehoe and James R. Eyler, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in the consolidated cases Damian Gerety v. State of Maryland and Briana Antkowiak v. State of Maryland, Nos. 2349 and 2365, September Term 2019.

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