Action Project: Opinion

Cardinal View: Good Samaritan laws should go further

Good Samaritan policies in Madison could disincentivize those under the influence from calling for help.

Image By: Miller Jozwiak

Passed out on a stranger’s bathroom floor. Stumbling down the street, held up by friends. Leaning over a plastic Walgreens bag in an Uber. Images most college students have witnessed—or personally experienced—during a night out.

There’s a fine line in these situations when one too many shots flirts with alcohol poisoning, when one more pill tiptoes on overdose. But how do we as college students make that judgment call for ourselves or for a friend? With unclear policies regarding underage drinking or drug use and potential punishments across different police departments, it’s difficult to know what the consequences of calling 911 will be—for both the caller and the person in trouble.

In a perfect world, emergency services would be contacted regardless of the repercussions for the sake of safety. But with underage drinking tickets costing as much as $263.50 for a first time offense and detox treatments totaling $530, the monetary effects can be troubling enough, let alone further legal ramifications.

A partnership between the UW-Madison Police Department and university took steps in the right direction to clarify this about six years ago through the Responsible Action Guidelines, which aim to “create a situation where responsible action is encouraged and expected,” according to the website.

The guidelines detail the situations in which the caller—not the person in danger themselves—would not be penalized for contacting emergency services despite consumption of alcohol. They do not apply to supplying of alcohol, use or possession of other drugs illegally or other crimes.

The procedure focuses around four situations: victims of crime, a person in need of medical attention, a caller who stays with the impaired individuals and for representatives of organizations hosting events who contact authorities.

“We’re reasonable people, and if you’re a victim of a crime or you do the right thing and you call for help for somebody, we’re not going to cite you,” UWPD Director of Communications Marc Lovicott said. “If you work with us and cooperate with us, we appreciate these individuals doing the right thing.”

While the guidelines take some of the pressure off of someone getting aid for a friend, this set of exceptions is solely for callers interacting with UWPD, whose jurisdiction is limited to campus, such as in residence halls, campus streets, sport venues, etc. These guidelines are very important and could save lives, yet they are not in place at the Madison Police Department.

When someone passes out at a bar or overdoses at a house party off campus, MPD officers will be the ones responding to the scene. MPD Chief Mike Koval said the focus of any emergency situation is providing help to the person in trouble.

“I believe that our Department is more interested in rendering aid than assigning blame or culpability,” Koval said in an email. “When someone calls in a heroin overdose, our first and foremost concern as ‘guardians’ is to ensure that we can save a life.”

A bystander should never hesitate to call for help in an emergency situation for the fear of a drinking ticket for themselves or the endangered individual. Given the vulnerability of someone “under the throes of alcohol,” the chances of being the victim of a violent crime, sexual assault or life threatening maladie will increase, according to Koval.

“We should always place a premium on encouraging the reporting of these various activities as opposed to ‘punishing’ those who took the time and made the effort to bring a situation to our attention,” Koval said.

The ultimate goal of both police departments is commendable, to first provide care to the endangered and focus on potential charges or misdemeanors after. However, the Responsible Action Guidelines are just that–guidelines, not a formal code. While Koval’s stance at MPD follows a similar process, there’s no written record of it.

“I agree with the city stance too,” Lovicott said of MPD. “They may not have a guideline, but in our working relationship with the city, you know they’re reasonable, and they’re not going to pursue a citation against an individual, in general terms, when they call to try to get help for a friend.”

The inconsistency in policies between departments is understandable, however, it leaves students confused and uninformed, wondering if UWPD’s guidelines or the discretion of an MPD officer will determine the caller’s consequences for something such as underage drinking.

Our editorial board acknowledges the work put forth by the university and UWPD’s partnership and MPD’s commitment to safety. However, we seek a more progressive angle of a Good Samaritan law to fully and consistently protect not only the caller but the endangered person in an emergency situation involving alcohol and drugs. Surely the effects of a near-death experience are a more prominent consequence than paying a fine.

For Skye Tikkanen, who helped chair an ad hoc committee within the  State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, finding ways to get those who overdose to call 911 is vital to combating overdose deaths.

A 2013 report spearheaded by Tikkanen and representatives from the state Department of Justice, law enforcement officials and others helped lead the way to a bill in 2013 that protects individuals from civil and criminal liability for calling 911 to help a friend, even if they are in possession of a controlled substance.

Assembly Bill 447 was part of the Heroin, Opiate Prevention and Education Agenda, a collection of bills that state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, helped get through the legislature.

However, Wisconsin’s 911 Good Samaritan laws could go further, Tikkanen said, and our editorial board agrees.

Other states such as Maryland, where Tikkanen lived before Wisconsin, protect the person who does overdose from criminal liability for drug possession. According to Tikkanen, legislators like Nygren, as well as parents, were initially against these protections because they were concerned that if someone who overdoses doesn’t get arrested, that person wouldn’t get the treatment they need.

At the time the expanded proposal was introduced, UWPD was against it as well.

“We were not supportive of that [legislation] because the legislation took one step further, ensuring the individual who was in trouble, the person who maybe had too much to drink, also wouldn’t be sanctioned or have any repercussions against them,” Lovicott said. “We need people to understand that they can’t do this, and get no repercussions from it.”

However, Nygren and Tikkanen have been working on ways to get those who overdose the treatment that they need without having to go through an arrest.

“We know that treatment works better than jail,” Tikkanen said. “Recidivism is very high if we incarcerate them, many go back to using, and in a lot of cases, that’s not an effective strategy.”

Whether in a bar or a residence hall, students should never hesitate when someone is in danger for the fear of an underage drinking ticket. In a state known for its binge drinking and on a campus notorious for being the number one party school, some students will toe the line of overdrinking or overdosing.

It is encouraging that legislators from both sides of the aisle are working on ways to expand treatment options for those who overdose, as treatment is a better avenue than an arrest and potential jail time.

We need to support policy and legislation that will save lives. Passing up this opportunity has detrimental, and sometimes fatal, costs.

What are your thoughts on the existing Good Samaritan policies on campus and in the city of Madison? Have you or someone you know been affected by them? Please send any and all questions and comments to

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