By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers advanced legislation that would grant immunity for underage individuals seeking medical assistance while drunk or for a drunk friend.
On a voice vote Thursday, the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives advanced the “Lifeline 911” bill that would allow someone to contact emergency medical services for themselves or a drunk friend and avoid criminal prosecution for underage drinking. The bill – advanced by campus student government leaders in the state – faced a heavy debate, with a lawmaker trying to include criminal penalties for underage drinking as part of the plan. The bill advances to final vote on Friday.
“There are young people under the age of 21 that could be at a party,” Rep. Tom Phillips (R-Manhattan), the carrier of the bill, told the House. “An individual could pass out and have serious health problems. What this bill is trying to do is encourage good action of up to two others and be good Samaritans. It will help prevent a tragic accident or death.”
The legislation has received support from groups representing chiefs of police, peace officers and county sheriffs in the state, with Phillips noting that almost 30 other states have adopted the bill. Mothers Against Drunk Driving testified against the bill during a committee hearing.
The state Senate passed the bill last year.
Phillips and advocates for the bill said that the bill would save lives in the state, by allowing those to seek medical assistance for a drunk friend without worrying about facing prosecution. The bill was pushed by student government leaders at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, who argue that it is needed to provide protections.
“I rise in support of the bill. The students have been working on it for years,” Rep. Sydney Carlin (D-Manhattan) said. “I support the students coming forward with this to try to save lives.”
Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita) rose in opposition to the bill, saying that it would allow “amnesty and immunity” for underage drinkers and binge drinkers, along with what he said would be repeat offenders. He said that while he believed in showing compassion, that “actions should have consequences.”
“It effectively creates a preferred class of offender,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that would require parental notification about the underage drinking, along with placing first and second time offenders who end up in the emergency room or call for a friend to be placed into a diversion program. Under his amendment, a third time offender would face the penalties for a third offense, including loss of driving privileges.
Whitmer said that research he found from Cornell University showed the programs does not reduce underage drinking and he is looking to help those with a drinking problem.
Several lawmakers spoke against Whitmer’s amendment, saying that lawmakers needed to show compassion for those in medical need. They argued that Whitmer’s amendment would gut the purpose of the bill and erect a barrier to making a call for emergency medical help. They said that in order to enter the diversion program, the students would first need to be criminally charged, which they said is not the intent of the bill.
“He tells us that we need to punish people who are in danger of losing their lives,” Rep. John Carmichael (D-Wichita) said. “Our intention is not to impose the death penalty on those who require emergency medical care. This is about saving children’s lives.”
Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills) spoke of her work with the Stop Underage Drinking Coalition in Johnson County where she said that she saw cases of underage individuals who are drunk being unable to make “sound decisions” because they are impaired. She said the bill would save lives.
“We have horrific deaths,” she said. “That is not acceptable.”
Rep. Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee) argued against Whitmer’s amendment saying that while he considers himself a “law and order” legislator, lawmakers also need to show compassion. Citing Luke chapter 14 in the Bible, Hildabrand said that the biblical passage shows the need to show compassion in situations like the underage drinking argument.
“If this bill saves one life it is worth it,” he said.
Rep. Joe Scapa (R-Wichita) spoke in favor of Whitmer’s amendment, echoing many of the same lines as the sponsor. He said that people should not be made to help others because of immunity from prosecution; he said they should show a heart by helping others.
“There are consequences to actions,” Scapa said. “Sometimes people change their actions because of consequences. They shouldn’t be told to help because of immunity.”
The bill is scheduled for a final vote on Friday by the full House. Due to amendments made by the House Judiciary Committee, the bill will need consent from the Senate or a conference committee hearing before heading to Gov. Sam Brownback (R).
College student leaders cheered the bill’s passage on social media. Jessie Pringle, the student body president at the University of Kansas, told The Celock Report that the bill shows that lawmakers are listening to students.
“The House passing SB 133, what many call lifeline 911, not only shows the state legislature listens to students who have advocated for the bill and its passage but also that they are looking out for their welfare,” Pringle said. “I am pleased to see it move through the session so quickly as it has been a student priority over the past years!”