An increase in opioid-related deaths has officials reminding people that they won’t get in trouble for making an emergency drug overdose call.
Vermont’s Good Samaritan Law, passed in 2013, provides protection from criminal liability for those who call for help from the scene of an overdose.
Drug overdose deaths are on the rise, and officials say they don’t want the fear of criminal reprisal to keep people from making life-saving phone calls for emergency help. A recent report from the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) found that opioid-related deaths totaled 157 in 2020, which was a 38 percent increase from 2019. Fentanyl is responsible for 88 percent of opioid-related deaths in 2020, according to the department of health.
Law enforcement officials say getting people the life-saving help they need during a drug overdose is more important than discovering and prosecuting a crime.
“Saving lives is a top priority for Vermont’s law enforcement, not prosecuting those seeking medical help in emergencies,” said Attorney General Donovan. “I hope that we can spread greater awareness about the Good Samaritan Law so that no Vermonter fears calling 9-1-1 in the event of an overdose. Taking this action step could save someone’s life.”
St. Johnsbury Police Chief Tim Page said police officers go to all reported drug overdose calls in the village and often they arrive on scene before medical emergency crews arrive. They have administered Narcan, a quick-acting medication used to block the effects of opioids and restore normal breathing in an overdose victim.
The chief supports protections from criminal consequences through the Good Samaritan Law. “I’d rather see someone saved than worry about a possession charge on a drug case,” he said.
He said when people see the police cars arrive at the scene of a drug overdose, the priority for police is safety not busting someone for drugs.
“We’re not going there to arrest people,” said Chief Page. “We’re going there because there’s an emergency and we want to be in a position to help.”
Dispatch Operations Manager Anthony Skelton said police are dispatched at the same time as emergency crews to the overdose location. Sometimes callers are nervous about giving information about themselves, said Skelton.
“We sometimes get the question ‘why do you need my name?,’ Skelton said. “It’s not us trying to get them in trouble.” He said police go to ensure the safety of the responding EMS crews and to be in a position if the overdose victim dies.
“The goal is not to find out where they got the drugs; it’s more for safety purposes,” said Skelton.
Under the Good Samaritan Law, when someone seeks medical assistance for an overdose, the overdose victim and anyone helping care for the victim while awaiting emergency medical assistance cannot:
• Be prosecuted for any drug crime based on evidence found from the incident;
• Get sanctioned for violating trial release, probation, furlough, or parole for being at the scene of an overdose;
• Be found in violation of a restraining order, for being at the scene of the drug overdose, or for being within close proximity to any person at the scene of the drug overdose;
• Have personal property seized by law enforcement through civil asset forfeiture from that incident.
Chief Page said if any illegal drugs are in view, police can confiscate those, but not as evidence against the person who called in the overdose emergency.
There are, however, limitations to the protections in the Good Samaritan Law, which Vermonters should know about. For example, this law does not protect from eviction, DCF intervention, or other civil legal cases.
For more information and resources, including free fentanyl test strips and free and anonymous Narcan overdose reversal kits, contact Howard Center Safe Recovery at 802-488-6067.
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