After Jason Elie overdosed on heroin on April 11, his day got worse. A Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy arrested him for possessing trace amounts of the drug and hauled him off to jail.
The Sheriff’s Office said it was forced to arrest Elie because he had the drug in his pocket. Advocates said a “good Samaritan” law passed last year by the Legislature should have prevented his arrest on a drug charge.
Either way, his case highlights sharply differing opinions on the best way to approach drug abuse — as a law enforcement problem or a public health problem.
Whichever way it’s viewed, heroin is a problem: Although the numbers have declined significantly from last year, eight people died in the first quarter of 2015 in Jefferson Parish due to overdoses of the drug, according to preliminary results from the Coroner’s Office.
The spare details of Elie’s arrest are included in an arrest report: When he overdosed, he was taken to West Jefferson Medical Center for treatment. Although heroin can be a deadly drug, its effects are reversible if a patient is treated quickly enough. A cheap and safe drug called naloxone essentially acts as an antidote to its effects on the brain.
While Elie was being treated, however, the hospital staff searched his clothing. They found what the report describes as a “small amount” of heroin in the left front pocket of his jeans. They called the Sheriff’s Office, and soon both a sheriff’s deputy and a crime scene technician were in the hospital. About 5 a.m., Elie was arrested and booked for possession.
He spent nine days, including his 32nd birthday, in jail. But the state law passed last year raises questions about both whether the hospital should have called the Sheriff’s Office and whether he should have been arrested.
The good Samaritan law — sponsored by state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge — passed last May. Its purpose was to make sure that drug laws don’t have the perverse effect of preventing overdose victims and bystanders from seeking treatment for fear of arrest.
The law states that “a person who experiences a drug-related overdose and is in need of medical assistance shall not be charged” with possession if the evidence was obtained as a result of the overdose.
But while that language appears clear, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office said its hands are tied when overdose victims show up at the hospital with any drugs — even trace amounts — on their person.
“This law does not apply to this particular situation where the man was in possession of an illegal narcotic,” said Col. John Fortunato, a JPSO spokesman. “They just can’t send them on their merry way with heroin, and the hospital’s not going to hold the drugs, that’s for sure.”
Fortunato said he was aware that the law was intended to encourage those who need help to seek it. But he argued that arrests might send an important message to drug users.
“Maybe the next time, he won’t use heroin,” he said.
Others have a strikingly different interpretation of the law.
“If this guy was arrested for having heroin in his pockets when he went in for treatment for an overdose, that arrest was not a valid arrest under Louisiana law,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The way to help him is to help him. Locking him up isn’t going to help him.”
There is another wrinkle in Elie’s case: He also had an outstanding warrant in Orleans Parish.
Under Supreme Court precedent, his arrest on the heroin charge may have been valid because the drug inevitably would have been discovered when he was booked into jail on the warrant.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on whether it intends to accept the possession charge.
Even good Samaritan law proponent Logan Kinamore, the director of the group No Overdose Baton Rouge, concedes the arrest on the outstanding Orleans Parish warrant was valid. He just questions why the hospital called the police in the first place.
Hospital spokesman Taslin Alfonzo declined to comment on Elie’s individual case, citing federal privacy law. But she said that according to the hospital’s legal counsel, the good Samaritan law has “nothing to do with the practices of this facility” because it applies only to law enforcement.
In that view, because the hospital is not covered by the good Samaritan law, it is free to call the police as it wishes.
But Kinamore argued that the hospital’s duty to patient health outweighs its perceived responsibility to alert law enforcement to drug law violations. He worries that Elie — and others like him — might not call 911 the next time.
“I don’t think that law enforcement should be involved in a situation like this,” Kinamore said. “People who use drugs do not feel safe accessing public health services because they are afraid of prosecution, and people die because of that.”