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Published April 09, 2013, 08:52 AM

Minnesota Bill: Amnesty for intoxicated underage drinkers

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A proposed state law would give underage drinkers protection from prosecution if they call 911 because of a medical emergency, such as a friend who's out cold after a night of heavy drinking.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A proposed state law would give underage drinkers protection from prosecution if they call 911 because of a medical emergency, such as a friend who's out cold after a night of heavy drinking.

Winona State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato, are among hundreds of colleges across the country with "medical amnesty" policies on campus. Now Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester is sponsoring legislation that would make it a state law, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported Tuesday. Indiana already has a similar law in place.

University of Minnesota student body president Taylor Williams said students' hesitation to call for help is a huge problem with a clear fix.

But the Minnesota Sheriffs Association fears the bill could encourage underage drinking. Its executive director, Jim Franklin, said he supports an amendment saying that to be protected, a young person calling 911 must stick around until help arrives.

Franklin pointed out that officers have discretion in deciding whether to charge someone with underage possession or consumption. In most cases, he and other officials said, officers don't ticket underage drinkers when responding to a medical call.

Greg Hestness, police chief at the University of Minnesota, said he's been "pretty pleased" with his officers' judgment in deciding what's most important when out on a call.

"Typically, it's not putting a citation in the shirt pocket of somebody being loaded on a gurney," Hestness said.

The university police department has not taken a position on Liebling's bill, and Hestness said he wonders whether it might be "a nonexistent problem chasing a solution." A bigger problem, he said, is students not using good judgment because they're impaired themselves.

At Winona State, dean of students Karen Johnson said she started out with mixed feelings before the school adopted its medical amnesty policy in April 2012.

"On the other hand, the bottom line is the students' health and safety," Johnson said.

A study of Cornell University's medical amnesty protocol found that it made a difference: The number of alcohol-related emergency calls grew 22 percent from 2002 to 2004. The share of students who didn't call for help and cited fear of "getting the person in trouble" as the reason dropped 61 percent.

Still, that was not the main reason students declined to call. The most common response was: "I wasn't sure the person was sick enough."

Tony Maxam favors the amnesty law because of what he's seen on the night shift. From 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., once every week or two, Maxam patrols a University of Minnesota residence hall filled with his fellow freshmen. He has witnessed a few ugly situations in which it was clear someone needed help, yet friends didn't ask for it.

When you're really drunk, "your safety is in the hands of the people you're with," Maxam said.

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