Lifeline update to grant increased immunities

The legislation, which passed the Indiana Senate and House of Representatives without opposition, builds on existing protections to grant immunity from prosecution for underage individuals who report medical emergencies or crimes they witness. The current Lifeline Law only applies to medical emergencies caused by alcohol consumption.

“It expands your protections if you’ve been using alcohol or drugs and you’re reporting a medical emergency, or you’re the victim of a sexual assault or you’ve witnessed a crime and you’re reporting that crime,” Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, said.

Throughout the process of creating the Lifeline Law in 2012 and expanding it this legislative session, student representatives from universities around the state have been heavily involved. Members of the IU Student Association helped draft the original language and testified at the Statehouse about the expansion.

Many of the ideas in the expansion came from IUSA and other student government organizations in the state, said Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author.

“They painted a picture, accurately so, about sexual assault going unreported because an individual was drunk,” Merritt said. “Expanding it so that if you’re a victim of a crime or you witness a crime that you’re given immunity as well, and that’s primarily from the students themselves.”

In addition to introducing new situations in which underage drinkers will be immune from prosecution, the Lifeline Law expansion establishes a “mitigating circumstance” for individuals who call 911 for medical emergencies while under the influence of illegal drugs.

This mitigating circumstance would give police and prosecutors the option not to arrest or file charges if the 911 call were the only reason a person using drugs was caught.

“It’s not full-blown immunity, but it allows police or prosecutors to waive any charge related to that,” Stoops said. “That’s important.”

He said there is a problem of sexual assaults and some other crimes going unreported in Monroe County, and he hopes this expansion will help the county prosecutor.

Stoops filed a bill this session that would have granted immunity to 911 callers under the influence of drugs and controlled substances. It was absorbed into Merritt’s bill during the session.

“My original language proposed immunity,” Stoops said. “As far as I’m concerned, we don’t want any barriers for somebody reporting an emergency situation. It’s certainly more important that we’re finding out if somebody’s overdosed or somebody’s the victim of a crime than having to place more importance on the fact that somebody might be abusing drugs.”

Now, Merritt said his goal is to ensure people, and especially students, understand the immunities and mitigating circumstances granted by the Lifeline Law. He will visit college campuses with Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller and speak at freshman orientation programs.

Merritt and other legislators have collaborated with retailers around the state, including Big Red Liquors, to better communicate about the Lifeline Law’s provisions when people purchase handles of hard liquor.

“It’s my responsibility to continue to educate the masses of kids who go to Indiana colleges,” Merritt said. “A lot of times that’s where our problems lie — is kids who have newfound freedom.”

Although the Lifeline Law expansion does not include the full immunity accounted for in Stoops’s bill, he said he was pleased with the bipartisan nature of the law. Not only was the expansion unanimous in both the Indiana House and Senate, but the passage of the original law was, too.

“We do have bipartisan efforts on a lot of bills that both Democrats and Republicans feel strongly about,” he said. “The Lifeline bill really reflects shared concerns.”

Follow reporter Michael Auslen on Twitter @MichaelAuslen.

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