Underage drinking Samaritan law could save lives

Minors who seek medical help for others because they have been drinking should not have to worry they will be arrested because they, too, have imbibed. And underage drinkers should not be charged if they report serious crimes to police.

Legislators in 21 states have agreed with that and passed “good Samaritan” statutes giving limited immunity to juveniles in such situations. Ohio may be next to provide similar protection.

It makes sense. When a juvenile drinks so much he or she becomes ill, perhaps seriously, aid ought to be summoned immediately. The same is true for other situations such as traffic accidents caused by minors who have been drinking.

But under current Ohio law, a minor who calls for help in a medical emergency can be charged with underage drinking. No doubt that threat prompts some teenagers to refrain from seeking help for others in medical trouble because they have been drinking.

Some institutions of higher learning, including Ohio and Ohio State universities, already have laws that protect young good Samaritans in such situations. A few state legislators want to extend the exemption statewide.

But some law enforcement officials warn of unintended consequences. They point out that in emergencies, police seldom charge those who call for help anyway. And a blanket law could be manipulated by juvenile drinkers more interested in avoiding impending arrest than with helping anyone.

Safeguards against that should be built into the law. For example, an underage drinker should be exempt from prosecution only if he already has summoned help for someone else – not by claiming he was just about to call police when they arrived.

Ohio legislators should approve a good Samaritan law for underage drinkers – to save lives, not to give some juveniles a “get out of jail free card” to dodge arrest.