Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

August 29, 2013

BOB ZALTSBERG: Lifeline Law makes room for discretion, lawmakers say

Legislation offers immunity when help sought due to alcohol consumption.

Kokomo Tribune

---- — Indiana’s new Lifeline Law puts the safety of someone who needs medical care over any concern that a person calling for help could wind up in trouble because of an alcohol violation.

The man who shepherded the bill through the Statehouse, Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, stresses that’s the intent of the law: Safety first.

“We go back to the fact that nobody’s going to get mad that you called 911,” he said Monday.

Early Friday morning, that didn’t happen when people at a party where alcohol was being served found 19-year-old Rachael Fiege of Zionsville at the bottom of some basement stairs after an apparent fall. They told police they moved her to another room and monitored her overnight. When she couldn’t be awakened sometime after 7 a.m., they called for medical help.

She died Saturday.

Merritt said it’s difficult to talk about this particular case because many details aren’t known, such as whether Fiege was drinking or how much.

“There could have been people who were overserved [alcohol] that might have been fearful they could get in trouble,” he said. But if there’s a situation in which someone needs help, the law’s intent is to provide immunity to whomever makes the call, he said.

But the question exists: If Fiege’s injuries were not caused by alcohol, would the law have covered the underaged drinkers?

The new law lays out a set of circumstances in which immunity is given if help is sought “for an individual who reasonably appeared to be in need of medical assistance due to alcohol consumption.” What if help is called for someone who’s sober but otherwise injured?

Merritt said part of his reason for pushing the law was to fight binge drinking. But he believes the law should set in motion safety in a broader set of circumstances.

“A lot of times we need to put a little more confidence in law enforcement,” he said. “A lot of times, all they really want to do is help. They have that culture of care going on. They just want to make sure everybody’s OK. I think you have to put a little faith in the police.” Thus if somebody falls or is hurt, law enforcement, he believes, will be more focused on getting care for the injured than arresting people.

He said as with all laws, if someone has a suggestion to make it better, he’ll work with that. He’s committed to safety, but that includes safety from drinking to illness or death.

“I do not want to give incentives to binge drinking,” he said. “We need to give incentive to calling 911.”

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, agreed that police and prosecutors have plenty of discretion to interpret the law.

“I suspect this is the kind of thing when somebody is close but not specifically within the law, the prosecutor would have full discretion whether to charge or not,” he said. He’s said there’s more “wiggle room” in the law than might appear because both the police and prosecutor can focus on safety rather than the specific language of the law.

“We needed to kind of break this cycle where people could be saved if they just called the police” rather than worried they might get in trouble, he said. “There was some concern that if you made the law very broad, you might be sending a signal that anything goes.”

While he strongly supports the Lifeline Law, Pierce thinks education and awareness will be more important than legal actions in dealing with cultural issues such as underage drinking.

“The criminal code is terrible at dealing with these social issues,” he said, noting laws can be written too strictly. “Ultimately the way to solve this will not be through the criminal code, it will be the grinding education process and changing the culture.”

Bob Zaltsberg is editor of The Herald-Times of Bloomington. Contact him at rzaltsberg@heraldt.com.