ST. GEORGE – In accordance with the so-called Good Samaritan overdose law, prosecutors are not pursuing charges against 20-year-old Chelsea Hunerlach, who was arrested after reporting a drug overdose last month.
“Our decision was based on the statute,” Washington County Deputy Attorney Bryan Wheat said, “and also the policy that we’d rather have someone call and help someone who has overdosed, than have them be worried about criminal charges and maybe abandon somebody, and have a death result from that.”
Additionally, Wheat said:
The idea behind the Good Samaritan statute, is that we want someone to not be afraid to call the police when they are reporting an overdose of someone who’s incapacitated or is suffering overdose symptoms.
Hunerlach was arrested on drug charges the evening of Sept. 11, after calling for help when her ex-husband, Jon Vincent Paxman, 22, of St. George, overdosed on heroin in a room at the Coronada Inn & Suites in St. George.
Upon entering the hotel room, first responders found Paxman lying on the floor, according to court documents. Paramedics were able to revive him with Narcan, an opioid antagonist, and ground ambulance transported him to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.
Paxman was also arrested on drug charges and booked into the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility after he was released from the hospital.
“I’m glad that Mr. Paxman is OK,” Wheat said. “I’m glad that something tragic didn’t happen there and I’m glad that Miss Hunerlach was able to call for some help. I’m certainly glad that this didn’t end in a worse way – that’s the most important thing here.”
The Overdose Reporting Amendments, also referred to as the Good Samaritan Law, was signed by Gov. Herbert in March with a purpose of reducing deaths related to drug overdoses by encouraging people to call emergency officials without fear that they might be arrested for drug possession.
The law is designed to give immunity and offer legal protection to any Good Samaritan who reports an overdosing victim in good faith and then continues to cooperate with rescue personnel.
The way it works
“The statutory language is that it is an affirmative defense,” Wheat said, “and so it’s a lot like self-defense in a lot of situations. It’s where you’ve still broken the law but yet, you have an affirmative defense that excuses you based on your behavior and, in this case, reporting the overdose in good faith, cooperating with the emergency officials to help the person get treatment and informing them of what’s going on.”
Although in some jurisdictions the law works as a shield, in Utah, the good Samaritan can still be arrested, Wheat said, they just have to employ that affirmative defense.
Hunerlach’s attorney, Larry Meyers, said the affirmative defense means:
If the county continues to prosecute then you have to raise that affirmative defense at trial and the person who’s deciding the case would find the facts. There would be a jury instruction that says this is what you’re looking for and if these facts are met then you should find her not guilty based on affirmative defense.
Meyers said, in his view, the county attorney’s office should dismiss Hunerlach’s charges.
The good Samaritan
After being arrested on a Thursday evening, Hunerlach’s mother, Chelley Bullis, hired Meyers to represent her daughter in order to have her released from the correctional facility as quickly as possible due to medical concerns.
Hunerlach spent the weekend incarcerated. Four days later, on a Monday afternoon, Hunerlach was released on an O.R. order – a release on her own recognizance, which is a no-cost bail – with a hearing set for Oct. 6 before Judge John J. Walton of the county’s 5th District Court.
Since that time, Wheat chose not to pursue charges against Hunerlach and the judge dismissed the charges. Hunerlach does not have to appear in court.
Paxman’s charges have not and will not be dropped in this situation, Wheat said, because the affirmative defense doesn’t apply to him.
“If you’ve overdosed and you’re found in possession of drugs like Mr. Paxman was, well,” Wheat said, “then that’s clearly a possession situation – that’s clearly a situation where he’s violated the law and the statute does not cover him. He’s not the one that reported it.”
Wheat went on to say that he’s not sure exactly what would happen in a situation where the person who overdosed reported themselves and was found in possession of drugs.
“In the end,” Wheat said, “you want to save lives that might be lost otherwise if someone’s too scared to call the police or to call for emergency help and that’s the idea there.”
Ed. CORRECTION: Hunerlach was arrested on Sept. 11, not Oct. 11.
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