September 15, 2014

HARRISBURG - As the General Assembly’s abbreviated fall session started today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania stated its hope for the passage of several bills to enhance public safety and health. The organization’s priorities include legislation to require police training on mental health and intellectual disabilities, to ensure prosecutorial immunity for people who overdose on drugs and witnesses who call for help, to authorize medical cannabis, and to prohibit municipal ordinances that punish residents for calling for police help.

“These initiatives could save lives,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “By passing these bills, Pennsylvania can be a part of the national conversation on police-community relations and on rethinking the ‘War on Drugs.’”

Senate Bill 1164, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester), would provide immunity from certain criminal charges for people who overdose on drugs and for witnesses to those overdoses who alert emergency services. It also expands access to the drug naloxone, which overrides the effects of an overdose, to first responders and family and friends of people with addictions.

The legislation passed the Senate and was scheduled for a final vote in the state House during the last week of June. However, the House did not vote on the bill before recessing for the summer.

“The ‘Good Samaritan’ bill is an important step in treating substance abuse as more of a public health concern and less of a law enforcement concern,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Twenty one states and the District of Columbia have similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The organization is also advocating for House Bill 1504, legislation introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Caltagirone (D-Berks County) that would require municipal police officers to receive annual training on identifying and addressing mental illness and intellectual disabilities.

“The nation is having a much-needed conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Shuford said, referencing police shootings in Missouri and elsewhere around the country. “Mental health and intellectual disabilities have to be part of that conversation.

“With proper training, officers can identify behaviors that may indicate individuals have mental illness or an intellectual disability and can address them with techniques that deescalate situations, rather than escalating them.”

HB 1504 passed the House unanimously in October of 2013 and passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee without opposition a month later. It has been in the Senate Appropriations Committee since then.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is also supporting legislation to authorize the use of cannabis for medical purposes (Senate Bill 1182) and to prohibit municipalities from punishing crime victims who call for help on multiple occasions (House Bill 1796). The latter was instigated by the ACLU’s litigation against the borough of Norristown, Montgomery County, on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, a domestic violence survivor who was threatened with eviction after she was attacked by her ex-boyfriend and neighbors called 911.

Norristown agreed to settle that lawsuit last week with terms that include repealing the ordinance that was used against Ms. Briggs. HB 1796, meanwhile, has been stymied by an unrelated amendment added by a Senate committee that prohibits municipalities from passing ordinances that mandate unpaid sick leave for workers, which is opposed by many supporters of the original bill.

“All of these bills are common sense initiatives that have broad support among legislators and stakeholders,” Hoover said. “We are hopeful that they can get off the legislative deck and get to the governor.”