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Amnesty granted for minor drinkers reporting emergencies (08/11/2013)
By Chris Rogers
Underage drinkers should not think twice about calling for help anymore. A new law known as the medical amnesty law protects young people from receiving a ticket for minor consumption of alcohol if they call 911 to report a medical emergency. The goal of the law is to reduce alcohol related deaths among young people. Minors are often afraid to call 911 for a friend who has has had too many drinks because they are worried about being ticketed, say advocates for the law.

The bill passed the House and the Senate in sweeping, bipartisan votes this spring and came into affect on August 1.

The bill was inspired by and received backing from state colleges and universities, such as Winona State University (WSU), which were already following similar internal policies and coordinating enforcement goals with local law enforcement.

"Our students' safety is our number one goal not to hand out underage drinking tickets," said Winona State University professor and campus victim advocacy organizer Tamara Berg.

In the past, WSU had awareness campaigns designed to let students know they would not be targeted for alcohol violations if they were reporting emergencies, but "we had to be very careful as to how we worded it, because we couldn't legally guarantee that," Berg explained. "Now we can make it clear to our students, if they're reporting a medical situation, they won't be punished for drinking."

Some law enforcement officials in the state opposed the law. They argued that officers should be allowed discretion in whether to ticket minors on a case-by-case basis.

Representative Steve Drazkowski said that he had misgivings about offering amnesty for underage drinkers, but was swayed by the stories fellow lawmakers shared at the Capitol this spring. "You would see one young person drop off a friend at an emergency room. The friend was passed out from alcohol, and one would drop the other off and leave a note," he explained. "That was a compelling anecdote."

Still, Drazkowski said, how the law works in practice will be its true test.

Representative Gene Pelowski said he supported the bill because of "the tragedies that have occurred on campuses as a result of excessive drinking."

In 2007, WSU student Jenna Foellmi died from alcohol poisoning. It was unclear whether her friends were aware of her dangerous condition and if they failed to report it out of fear of minor consumption citations. The Winona Police Chief at that time, Frank Pomeroy, said binge drinking is a personal choice, but "people need to help each other."

The new law states that minors "are not subject to prosecution" if they call 911 to report a person "in need of medical assistance for a immediate health or safety concern."

Under the new law, a group of people working together to report an emergency qualify for protection for minor consumption tickets, as well, but those who report must be the first people to call 911, they must remain at the scene, and they must cooperate with police. The person receiving medical assistance is also immune from drinking citations.

The new law does not weaken the social host law. Adults providing alcohol to minors or hosting parties are still subject to criminal citations under that law.

Local law enforcement officials were not aware that the new law was in effect when questioned by the Winona Post last week. However, officers are familiar with it now, they report.

In other states, victims and reporters of sexual assault are also given immunity to minor consumption charges. The new Minnesota law does not explicitly provide protection for victims of sexual or physical violence. It is unclear whether such assaults might, in some cases, qualify as "an immediate health or safety concern," and whether victims and those who report assaults would be protected under the new law.



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