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Virginia Court of Appeals Widens Medical Amnesty Law

Virginians who feel that they may be experiencing a drug or alcohol overdose are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They either seek medical help just to potentially be criminally charged with driving under the influence or drug use, or they do nothing and put their health and lives at risk. Luckily, the Virginia state court of appeals recently issued a decision that widens the state’s medical amnesty law, Code §18.2-251.03, a law that shields individuals from criminal charges if they seek medical attention because of a drug or alcohol overdose.

Facts of the Case

According to the decision, the defendant-appellant was arrested outside of an emergency room for controlled substance possession and driving under the influence. Police escorted him into the emergency room. Once inside, the defendant began to make suicidal statements and represented that he chose to go to the emergency room because he was thinking about suicide. The defendant further explained that he believed drugs to be the cause of these thoughts, because he had smoked crack cocaine and used heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine.

When the state attempted to use evidence of the defendant’s drug intoxication at trial, the defendant’s counsel attempted to suppress that evidence, arguing that the defendant was attempting to seek medical care for himself and should be immune from those charges. The trial court denied the motions to suppress the evidence and dismiss the drug charges, saying there was no evidence the defendant was experiencing a life-threatening condition.

The Decision

In its decision, the court distinguished between defendants seeking emergency care for an overdose who were objectively experiencing an overdose and those who only subjectively believed they were experiencing an overdose. The court explained that the clear purpose of Virginia’s medical amnesty statute was to “provide a safe harbor from prosecution to encourage prompt emergency medical treatment.” The court further noted that the plain language of the statute provided for immunity if a defendant was seeking medical attention in “good faith” and “experiencing” an overdose—two terms that applied to the person seeking treatment. Because good faith and experience both indicated the subjective state of mind of the person seeking treatment, the court concluded that Virginia’s General Assembly clearly indicated a desire for a subjective standard for the individual seeking care.

The court also determined that drug-induced suicidal ideation qualified as an “overdose” under the definition of the statute, because “overdose” is defined as “a life-threatening condition resulting from the consumption or use of a controlled substance, alcohol, or any combination of such substances.” The court reasoned that suicidal ideation qualifies as one such life-threatening condition, and that the defined term in the statutory text superseded the ordinary meaning of overdose.

Because the court was hearing this case on appeal, it determined the circuit court incorrectly applied an objective standard and vacated the defendant’s drug possession conviction and remanded the case back to the circuit court to correctly apply the subjective legal standard.

Contact a Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you’ve been charged in Virginia with DUI, DWI, or drug charges but feel that you may qualify for medical amnesty, contact the criminal lawyers at Robinson Law. The attorneys at Robinson Law have over 50 years of combined experience fighting for their clients’ rights. For a free consultation to talk through your options, give us a call at 888-259-9787

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