DA backs granting immunity, but expresses reservations

Blair County’s top law enforcement official said while he supports the concept of granting immunity to people who get help for an overdose victim, he has some concerns about how a proposed law potentially could hamper overdose death investigations.

“If something can save somebody’s life, I think we should support the general concept of the bill,” Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio said of House Bill 2090, a bill now before the General Assembly that would exempt people who seek aid for an overdose victim from prosecution.

It’s designed to take away fears people who are with overdose victims, and the victims themselves, have of getting in trouble, either for having drugs or paraphernalia on them or for violating their probation or parole.

Consiglio said he would have to see the final language of the bill, but its basis – saving lives – is something he supports. His biggest concern is if the law makes evidence found at an overdose scene unusable or somehow shields those responsible for providing the drugs, then it would be counterproductive to the drug delivery resulting in death law already on the books. That law was also designed to save lives by offering a deterrent to those who would supply drugs to addicts.

While it’s imperative to find ways to save lives, it shouldn’t hamper prosecuting offenders when a life is lost, Consiglio noted. It’s a conundrum, the district attorney said.

“We don’t want people lying there dying when you can save a life with a phone call,” Consiglio said.

With heroin use surging again in Pennsylvania, HB 2090 includes a number of provisions to address the deadly problem of overdoses. Steve Hower knows firsthand, as his girlfriend’s nephew, R.J. Beard, died of a heroin overdose in his Indiana County home in July.

“I was floored,” said Hower, who said Beard was discovered hours after he had died in a bathroom, despite claims by Beard’s mother that no one in the house called 911 out of fear of getting in trouble.

Hower said Beard had been at the house the night before, but everyone thought he had left and it wasn’t until late morning that he was discovered locked in a bathroom. Unknown to anyone at the house, Beard had brought heroin and shot up, Hower said.

Beard’s overdose has torn the family apart, he said, noting the collateral damage associated with an overdose death such as finger-pointing and having his house taken over by state police as they investigated the death.

“It was horrible,” Hower said. He and his family thought Beard was off heroin, and he said Beard hid the fact he was using. He said Beard got into a cold bath because he was under the false impression that it would reverse the effects of the heroin, instead of seeking help.

Hower said he supports the proposed bill and said if it helps saves lives by removing a major disincentive for addicts to seek help if they overdose, then it will be worth it.

In Beard’s case, getting in trouble didn’t cross anyone’s mind when he was finally discovered, only calling for 911, Hower said. By then it was too late.

“We’d have done anything in the world for that kid,” Hower said.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.