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Lawmaker: Immunity from citations would encourage underage drinkers to seek help

Saying that fear of being cited for underage drinking can keep young people from reporting crimes committed against them or helping intoxicated friends, a state lawmaker wants to provide immunity in such cases.

“We don’t want people to drop off their friends in the emergency department with a Post-it note on them and run away because they’re afraid they’ll get in trouble,” said Sen. Kelli Ward, R- Lake Havasu City, author of SB 1190.

Ward’s bill, dubbed Saving Lives, Saving Futures, would allow those under 21 to call for emergency services or help from police without fear of being cited for underage drinking. It also would apply to those under 21 who provide alcohol to someone else who is under the legal drinking age.

With dozens of college students packing the room and some of them sharing their stories, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the measure on a 6-1 vote.

Elizabeth Giovino, an ASU student, said she didn’t report a sexual assault against her when she was drugged at a party because she feared being cited for underage drinking.

“I was devastated,” she said. “All I could think about as I considered going to the police was the effect an MIC (minor in consumption) could have on my future.”

Devon Mills, a recent graduate of Arizona State University, said he brought the problem to Ward because of the 2012 death of Jack Culolias, an ASU fraternity pledge who drowned in Tempe Town Lake after using a fake ID to drink to excess at a bar. Mills said that incident made him want to do something about students being harmed in alcohol-related accidents.

“This isn’t an issue that’s just happening in colleges and universities,” he said. “We’re just hoping to cover all our bases here so that we don’t have a tragedy or death.”

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia offer similar immunity, she said.

Ward said that while some have raised concerns that such immunity would amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card it wouldn’t apply to those who are in possession of drugs, driving while intoxicated or committing other crimes.

Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said her organization opposes SB 1190 because law enforcement officers and prosecutors would need a clearer idea of who gets cited in specific scenarios. She also said it’s a bad precedent to provide blanket immunity.

Rather than a law, Marson suggested a campaign that promotes helping others no matter the situation because “that’s what grown-ups do.”

“We’re talking about 18 to 20 year olds,” she told the committee. “Legally, these folks are adults.”

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, voted for the bill but said he’d prefer diverting first-time offenders to alcohol-treatment programs as an alternative to citing them.

Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, cast the sole dissenting vote, saying that immunity isn’t the right way to address alcohol abuse.

“I have concerns that not only are we sending the wrong message but the larger problem isn’t being dealt with,” she said.

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Samantha Incorvaia/Cronkite News

Devon Mills, a recent graduate of Arizona State University, testifies in favor of a bill that would shield young people from being cited for underage drinking if they are reporting crimes against them or calling for police or medical help for another underage drinker in distress.