Like most states, Virginia has an overdose immunity law that protects those who seek emergency medical help for a person suffering a drug overdose from being charged with certain drug-related crimes discovered by officers only because the person sought help.
The goal of these laws is to minimize the number of fatal drug overdoses that result because people are afraid to get help for themselves or flee the scene rather than get help for someone else.
What does Virginia law say?
Under Virginia law, the immunity applies to the “unlawful purchase, possession, or consumption” of drugs or alcohol as well as drug paraphernalia. To qualify for immunity, a person must:
- Seek help “in good faith”
- Remain at the scene
- Identify themselves to law enforcement
Reporting an overdose to officers while they’re making an arrest or searching the premises doesn’t count.
The case before the appeals court
A case recently decided by Virginia’s Court of Appeals broadened the language in the law that refers to someone “experiencing an overdose.” It’s understandable in such a situation, particularly if someone’s reality is altered, to panic and assumes the worse. However, it’s better not to be afraid to err on the side of caution, as the court noted in its decision.
The case involved a man who was driving himself to a hospital in the Richmond area because he was feeling suicidal after smoking crack cocaine. He was stopped by officers who arrested him for DUI and drug possession. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to five years behind bars.
He appealed the drug possession charge, citing the immunity law, since he was in the process of seeking help. Prosecutors argued that he wasn’t actually overdosing. However, the majority of the court agreed with the man’s argument. They noted that if a person wasn’t certain they were overdosing, they would “hesitate before seeking emergency care.”
The ruling also noted that the man’s suicidal thoughts qualify as a “life-threatening condition resulting from the consumption or use of a controlled substance, alcohol or any combination of such substances,” as the law describes.
It remains to be seen whether the decision is appealed further. However, it’s always better to seek help if you believe you or someone else is in danger and then get legal help if necessary afterward.