The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the City of Washington Court House to end the practice of charging drug users revived by emergency responders using an overdose antidote.
The ACLU’s Ohio chapter says the practice is dangerous because it discourages people from calling for help when a loved one overdoses. Police in Washington Court House began citing people in February with a misdemeanor charge of inducing panic if responders revive them with naloxone.
“This policy discourages people from calling for help when their loved one or neighbor is experiencing an overdose. It’s dangerous,” said Elizabeth Bonham, staff attorney at the ACLU of Ohio, in a press release. “We cannot punish our way out of this opioid crisis. Charging victims of overdose with a crime is a perfect example of how not to deal with our opioid problem in Ohio.”
The city, which received a letter from the ACLU Tuesday, says the strategy helps authorities track overdose victims and offer them help. People who call 911 won’t be charged.
Washington Police Department Chief Brian Hottinger said Tuesday there has not been a decrease in overdose-related calls since officers were granted the authorization to use the inducing panic citation. Eight people revived by emergency responders after overdosing have been charged with inducing panic. The charge is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“When someone calls in to report that a loved one, friend or family member has overdosed, typically being charged with a crime is the last thing on their mind,” said Hottinger. “As we have stated before, our intent is not to punish an individual who calls in an overdose…it is to keep drug users accountable and get them the help or treatment that they need. If we saw a decrease in the amount of overdose calls, we would also see a massive increase in fatalities. That is something we have not seen.”
Hottinger also emphasized that this new approach is not a policy.
“Charging people with inducing panic is not a policy, written or verbal,” he said. “It’s simply granting each individual officer the power to have this option under the ORC (Ohio Revised Code) if that individual officer believes that the situation warrants an inducing panic charge. It is left to the officer’s discretion based on each individual case and the circumstances of that case. We depend on the officer’s judgment based on the circumstances as they weigh each individual case out.”
The ACLU stated in its press release that the City of Washington Court House is advocating criminalization over treatment. “Officials may have good intentions, but we know that piling on fines and jail time to treat drug use just doesn’t work,” Bonham said in the press release.
Washington C.H. City Manager Joe Denen said Tuesday that the city will “take a careful look at and digest what (the ACLU) has to say.”
“This isn’t about fines and it isn’t about punishment,” Denen said. “This drug addiction problem we have isn’t going away anytime soon. If you just ignore it, you might as well print out someone’s death certificate.”
In January, there were 45 reported drug overdoses in Fayette County and 56 in February. Twelve of those suspected overdoses resulted in deaths, according to Fayette County Sheriff’s Office statistics. For comparison, there were 28 reported overdoses in the county in January 2016 and only eight in February 2016. The majority of these reported overdoses occurred within the City of Washington Court House.
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352 or on Twitter @rywica