The past two decades have seen a dramatic rise in overdose fatalities in the U.S., especially deaths related to opioid use. The CDC reports that more than 70,000 Americans died of an overdose in 2017, and there are 192 such fatalities in the U.S. each day. 

Unfortunately, individuals experiencing or witnessing an overdose often hesitate to seek needed medical attention out of fear of facing a drug or alcohol charge. It is important for Virginians to know that state law offers some legal protections when reporting a potentially fatal overdose and seeking emergency medical care. 

What is safe reporting? 

In July 2019, Virginia passed a new safe reporting law that may shield individuals from criminal prosecution for certain drug and alcohol charges when they report an overdose. To qualify for protected status, the reporting person must make a good faith effort to seek emergency medical attention by informing an emergency responder at the time the overdose occurs. An emergency responder may include emergency medical personnel, a firefighter, a law enforcement officer or an emergency 911 system. The reporting individual must also remain at the scene, or with the person needing emergency care, and cooperate with law enforcement upon arrival. 

Which charges qualify for a safe reporting defense? 

Virginia law specifies a narrow range of drug and alcohol offenses that may fall under the safe reporting statute. These include public intoxication, possession of a controlled substance, possession of controlled paraphernalia, and the unlawful possession, purchase or consumption of alcohol. Charges that do not qualify for a safe reporting defense include illegal drug distribution, manufacture or sale. 

Does safe reporting apply in all circumstances? 

The law does not consider safe reporting a reasonable defense in certain circumstances. If the overdose occurs during the legal execution of a search warrant, a lawful arrest or a lawful search, the safe reporting law does not apply.