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Lifeline Law absolves ‘Good Samaritans’

Tori Roeck | Thursday, September 19, 2013


Your friend passes out from excessive alcohol consumption at an off-campus party. You’ve been drinking as well, and you’re both underage. Do you call for medical help immediately or do you hesitate, worrying about the consequences of a drinking citation on your medical school applications?

The Indiana Lifeline Law, which came into effect July 1, 2012, eliminates this decision for off-campus offenses. Under the law, neither the person who seeks help nor the one experiencing the medical emergency will receive a drinking citation, as long as they cooperate with authorities, Captain Phil Trent of the South Bend Police Department (SBPD) said. 

“We do not want to in any way, shape or form dissuade people from seeking medical attention, especially the person who needs it the most,” Trent said. 

According to the Indiana Lifeline Law website, it “provides immunity for the crimes of public intoxication, minor possession, minor consumption and minor transport to persons who reveal themselves to law enforcement while seeking medical assistance for a person suffering from an alcohol-related health emergency.” 

The law does not absolve people of crimes such as “providing to a minor, operating while intoxicated or possession of a controlled substance,” according to the law’s website.  

Brian Coughlin, associate vice president for student development, said he thinks the Lifeline Law is “fine” but should be unnecessary.

“I feel disappointed that it would be necessary, that folks would need some sort of policy or law to enable them to do the right thing for their fellow human being,” Coughlin said.

Student body president Alex Coccia said student government approves of the Lifeline Law and considers it a helpful resource for students presented with alcohol-related emergencies off campus.

“We made it very clear in our platform that medical amnesty in a broad sense is what we want to have included in University policy,” Coccia said. “It’s something that has come up many years in a row for students. It’s something that students do feel strongly about. And I think it makes practical sense. I think that’s why this Lifeline Law is so important.”

Currently, Notre Dame does not have a medical amnesty policy granting immunity from disciplinary outcomes to students who seek medical attention for a friend or for the individual suffering from the emergency. If a Notre Dame student received immunity under the Lifeline Law in an off-campus scenario, Ryan Willerton, director of the Office of Community Standards, said the student may still have to interact with his or her rector or representatives from Community Standards after the event. 

“It’s not a punitive system where we get a report and all of a sudden we go into investigative mode of ‘What were you drinking? How much were you drinking? You’re going to get in trouble. I need to figure out how much trouble’ – that’s not how it operates at all,” Willerton said. 

“It’s about we get a name, we get a report, we want to talk to the student – tell us your perspective. And then we determine an appropriate outcome tailored to that individual based on the nature of their involvement with that incident [and] their conduct history at the University, the same as the other schools that have medical amnesty policies.”

Willerton said there are three disciplinary status outcomes for students: probation, temporary dismissal and permanent dismissal.

If a student’s name is released to the University after he or she receives immunity under the Lifeline Law, it is unlikely that the student will suffer any disciplinary outcomes, he said.

“There’s only three disciplinary status outcomes. Everything else is educational, formative and developmental. That’s the key,” Willerton said. “So is a student on a first time intoxication where they helped another friend going to be temporarily dismissed? No. Are they going to be put on disciplinary probation? Probably not.”

Trent said not all incidents related to the Lifeline Law would result in reports being sent to the University.

“In a classic case, there would not necessarily be any report generated,” Trent said. “In a situation where the fire department medics were called to assist an ill party, whether or not there would be police response to begin with would be a question. There’s a lot of circumstances where we’ll encounter somebody and if there’s basically no criminal activity, i.e. we’re going to use the Lifeline Law in this case, there’s not going to be a report generated – no citations, no report, nothing.”

However, if SBPD breaks up a loud house party but does not issue citations, a report could still be sent to the University that includes the names of the house’s owners, Trent said. 

“We’re enormously busy on a football game Saturday, let’s say. An officer or two get dispatched to an off-campus house for a loud party. We get there, we note that it’s a large party, it’s very loud, it’s annoying the neighbors,” he said. 

“We might make a report and in that report we would cite that there were numerous people there that appeared intoxicated and these are the principal renters of the house and ostensibly the people who were hosting the party. Their names may be included in the report and that’s all that we would do, and we’d go back into service because we’re super busy, without issuing citations, without even breaking the party up.”

Trent said Indiana State Excise Police often issue their own citations, but the names of all parties involved might not necessarily reach the University.

“Even if [excise police] issued 50 citations, 50 names would not go into the South Bend Police Report,” Trent said. “Perhaps only a few names, those being the residents of that property would probably go into the report and potentially 50, 75, 100 other people wouldn’t be noted.” 

If the University does receive word of a student’s involvement in a situation falling under the Lifeline Law, Coughlin said the motivation behind meeting with students after such an incident is to prevent future medical emergencies.

“We don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to have an educational conversation with that student. You made a really good decision at the end of the night to say, ‘my friend’s in medical distress. I’m going to call someone for help,’ but how many other incidents throughout that evening could you or someone else have made a different decision that would’ve led to a different result where that student was not in a medical emergency?” he said. 

Coccia said student government’s lobbying for a medical amnesty policy at Notre Dame is also aimed at prevention.

“We’re focused on prevention, and we want to make sure, whether because it’s policy and or culture, that students are taking care of each other,” he said. “Whenever someone’s intoxicated, it’s going to impair judgment and we want to provide every opportunity to do the right thing and to help friends if help is needed.”

Coughlin said Community Standards’ new reporting policy should appease students worried about their futures.

“It seemed to me that one of the major drivers of [a medical amnesty policy] was this idea of my permanent record or what was reported other places, and I believe that we’ve significantly addressed that through our records reporting policy,” he said. “… The only thing that we report to other entities, whether they be graduate schools or bar associations or licensing groups, is those three disciplinary outcomes. And so if the excuse is, from a student, ‘Well I didn’t seek medical attention or help for my fellow student because I was worried about my med school application,’ that’s no longer an excuse that is valid.”

Willerton said Community Standards’ new disciplinary model also negates the need for a medical amnesty policy. 

“Within Community Standards, we look at every student as an individual, and that goes back to the new model that we have,” he said. “So the conversations we have with students are really dependent on their past conduct history and really the nature of the incident, so it’s not an ‘if, then’ type of situation.”

Coccia said medical amnesty is a big part of his and vice president Nancy Joyce’s platform, and they intend to bring up the issue with Campus Life Council. 

“I view this as an issue of inclusion, where we want to make sure students are feeling safe on campus,” he said.