Underage drinkers looking for help are safe

Underage drinkers may receive a break thanks to a new bill recently signed into law by Gov. Jon Corzine.

In an attempt to curb alcohol-related deaths among minors, “9-1-1 Lifeline Legislation” grants immunity from prosecution to up to three minors who have been drinking if they call for medical assistance for another intoxicated underage drinker. The law applies to the person needing assistance and up to two individuals who aid in seeking help.

When asked if the legislation was an effective way to decrease alcohol-related deaths among minors, associate director of Campus Police Capt. Timothy Grant acknowledged the positive qualities and possible faults of the bill.

“If the legislation increases the likelihood of underage drinkers calling for medical assistance when faced with an alcohol-related emergency, it has a chance to help avert some tragedies. Alcohol issues, however, demand a comprehensive and thoughtful approach. No single action can solve this problem,” Grant said.

The bill’s potential to encourage underage drinking with the possibility of immunity has been a point of contention among critics.

“We don’t want the law to be interpreted as condoning underage drinking. Students should view the law as ‘good samaritan’ legislation that affords them an opportunity to call for medical assistance when a fellow student’s life may be in jeopardy,” Grant said.

In order to qualify for immunity, the minors are required not only to call 9-1-1, but also cooperate with law enforcement and medical responders by providing their names and remaining at the scene with the sick minor.

Student opinion of “Lifeline” varied only slightly, those asked expressing hope that the law would eliminate the fear of legal repercussions in many situations. Many said they thought the bill would encourage students to call for help for a friend suspected of having alcohol poisoning, when previously self preservation was a primary motive for abandoning a friend in need.

“It’s a good way to prevent kids from being scared. It will save a lot of lives,’’ said junior biology major Laurie Dabaghian. When asked if she thought the bill would incite abuse due to the possibility of immunity, Dabaghian said she did not. Other students, however, recognized that there are prospective dangers existent in the legislation.

“I feel like it might motivate people to be more proactive in those situations. At the same time, they may be more likely to take advantage of it, use it as freebees because at the end of the day they will be in less trouble,’’ said junior nursing major Jessica Munoz.

According to Grant, “the College’s policy may need to be adapted to reflect this legislative change.” Under the College’s current policy, students under 21 who are charged with either consumption or possession of alcohol may be subject to removal from assigned housing, expulsion, and/or their parents may be notified according to the College’s Web site. New Jersey state policy dictates that underage individuals charged with either consumption or possession of alcohol may be subject to a $250 fine for the first offense, and $350 for any subsequent charge. Courts may also suspend the offender’s driver’s license for six months.

Though the status of the legislation’s application at the College is still ambiguous, Grant said ultimately, “Students will be the ones to determine the effectiveness of this legislation. Sometimes saving someone from alcohol poisoning is a matter of convincing fellow students to act. If providing immunity will encourage a greater number of students to call 9-1-1 when faced with that type of situation, that would be a welcomed result.”