Legislation would give amnesty to underage drinkers

Published 9:52am Monday, March 18, 2013

Alex Friedrich

Minnesota Public Radio News

ST. PAUL — Late one Saturday night two months ago, University of Minnesota freshman Dan Drill-Mellum, 19, had been drinking with some buddies. One of his friends got into a fight and took a blow the head, and fell hard to the ground.

When Drill-Mellum picked his friend up, the 18-year-old’s head was bruised and swollen. He acted disoriented and began to vomit.

“He was repeating himself a lot. He felt very sick,” Drill-Mellum said. “He was crying uncontrollably, so I took him to the bathroom, and he got even sicker.” Drill-Mellum eventually took his buddy to the hospital, but before he could do so others in the group tried to stop him.

“We went back and forth arguing, yelling at each other about whether or not our friend needed help,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Dan, we should keep him here. We can take care of him by ourself. He doesn’t need this. He could possibly get a minor. And it’s not worth it. We don’t want to risk that.’ ”

People who’ve had too much to drink can sometimes wind up in dire situations — beaten up, passed out from alcohol poisoning, or sexually assaulted. But when a young person is involved, underage drinkers often will not dial 911 because they are afraid police will cite them.

An attempt to change that is being made in Minnesota. The Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition is working with state lawmakers to introduce a bill they think will solve that problem. It would give underage drinkers immunity from prosecution if they contacted authorities about an immediate health or safety crisis and then met several requirements.

The fear of a “minor” — a citation for underage drinking, a misdemeanor that carries a minimum fine of $100 — may keep a lot of students from calling for help when they’re in trouble.

According to a draft 2012 report by the University of Minnesota, 11 percent of students surveyed in the state said it was “somewhat unlikely” or “very unlikely” that they would call 911 if they could not wake someone who had passed out from alcohol or drugs.

“They’re worried about things that could go on their permanent record,” said University of Minnesota junior Matt Forstie, chairman of the Student Legislative Coalition. “A lot of them don’t want to call 911 in a situation where they’re not 100 percent certain someone needs medical attention.”

The proposed legislation also would grant immunity to the person having the medical problem.

“I want my daughter to know that it’s OK to call me, call the police, call someone for help, or get someone to call for help,” said state Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, a police officer and one of the authors of the House bill, said. “So that she gets the help she needs so that she doesn’t end up raped, hurt or dead because she feared prosecution.”

Almost 200 colleges around the country, including Winona State University and Minnesota State University Mankato, have policies that give underage student drinkers amnesty from campus disciplinary action if they report emergencies.

Ten states have laws granting amnesty from prosecution. Michigan is one of them. Anecdotal reports suggest the law has worked in the 10 months or so since its passage, said Rebecca Allen, a health educator at Michigan State University.

Allen said more students are calling for ambulances, but drinking rates have not risen. She said students are taking alcohol poisoning more seriously.

“I think it has relieved them of the legal concerns,” Allen said. “They’re more open to hearing the message about, ‘How do you help your friend? And what do you look for,’ in terms of determining whether you need to make a phone call or not.”

Backers of the bill say it is written so students cannot abuse the law to escape prosecution. But Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, is not convinced. His group opposes the bill and is uneasy with the idea of medical amnesty, he said.

Franklin said peace officers often don’t cite underage drinkers in medical emergencies. Passing the law could send the wrong message to young people and make it more difficult for officers to enforce drinking laws, he said.

“You are, in essence, almost granting permission for students to break the law of consuming alcohol, and then if they ‘get in trouble,’ they can pull out the immunity card,” Franklin said.

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