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Immunity for overdose call signed into law

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo Photo Credit: Getty Images

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has signed into law a measure that encourages a witness or victim of a drug overdose to call 911 for medical help by protecting them from certain drug prosecutions.

New York joins Washington state and New Mexico, which have adopted similar "Good Samaritan 911" measures.

Under New York's law, a person who calls 911 to report an overdose would not be charged with drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia or certain alcohol-related offenses.

Massapequa resident Victor Ciappa had lobbied for the measure. In 2008, his 18-year-old daughter Natalie died of a heroin overdose at a friend's house party. Ciappa said he learned later that nearly 20 other teenagers at the party could have notified authorities about his daughter's condition but didn't.

"None of the kids would really come forward and tell us what happened," Ciappa said. "This law is going to save lives."

Responding to the state District Attorneys Association's concerns that criminals might use the new law to duck prosecution, lawmakers agreed to allow police to initially detain and interview someone who might have called 911.

"This bill is not intended to provide an escape hatch for those predatory drug traffickers who entice our children to consume the very substances that cause their overdose," Cuomo said in a statement upon signing the bill last week.

"I appreciate these law enforcement concerns, but I believe that the benefit to be gained by the bill -- saving lives -- must be paramount," Cuomo said.

Accidental drug overdose is the fourth leading cause of death among adults in New York. About 85 percent of overdoses occur in the company of others; no medical help is sought in half of those cases, according to the governor's office.

On Long Island, 370 overdose deaths from heroin, prescription drugs or alcohol -- or a combination -- were reported in 2009, said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"We're losing too many of these kids to overdoses before they can get into treatment," Reynolds said. "Calling for help can mean the difference between life or death."

Assemb. Philip M. Boyle (R-Bay Shore) said the protections in the law won't affect drug traffickers.

Boyle, who has worked as an emergency medical technician, said he was at a hospital one day when someone drove up and simply dropped off a young man who had overdosed.

"His friend drove up to the ER and threw the kid out the door and kept going," Boyle said. "This is how afraid these drug users are of getting caught."

Det. Lt. Andrew Fal, commanding officer of the Nassau police Narcotics/Vice Squad, said usually people who are taking pills or shooting heroin don't do so alone.

"The basic concept for the law is good, in that it would encourage someone to get on the phone and help, without abandoning them to die," Fal said. "But if someone is providing drugs as a business, they should never receive a way out."

Teri Kroll, coordinator for People United to Stop Heroin on Long Island, traveled to Albany in June to advocate for the bill and sent letters to the governor. Her son, Timothy Kroll, 23, died of a heart attack at their Copiague home in 2009 after four years of drug addiction.

Kroll said she expects the law will give drug users courage to fight their addictions.

"It's going to make them realize there is help out there," Kroll said, "and people who care to save their life."

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