Indiana County to Start Bringing Charges Against Residents Who Overdose

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Channel 27 News on 2/29/2020

Overdose deaths have increased across the country over the last couple of years, but Hancock County in Indiana is choosing to combat the problem in a new, and controversial, way.

In an article in the Indy Star, they lay out the size of the problem in Hancock County: “According to Indiana State Department of Health data, there were 84 opioid-related emergency department visits and 11 hospitalizations in Hancock County in 2018, the most recent data available.”

Hancock County’s prosecutor, Brent Eaton, played a big part in making changes to the way they approach addiction and overdose. These changes include bringing charges against people who overdose in the county.

While Eaton says he struggled with this decision, he told Fox 59 News the goal is to “[s]top that revolving door of people that would overdose that we would respond, they go to the hospital and then they go back out to the same environment.”

This means that people who overdose in Hancock County will face charges of Possession of a Controlled Substance, which is a Level 6 Felony and could result in a jail sentence between six months and two-and-a-half years.

Fox 59 News reports that, after the person is sent to the hospital to treat the overdose, “officers will fill out a form to determine if there is probable cause to file charges.”

The person who has overdosed is given the opportunity to plead guilty, and if they go that route, “the prosecutor’s office would agree to offer treatment services through probation,” instead of arresting the person and making them serve jail time.

When faced with questions as to whether or not this is a good idea, Eaton told Fox 59 News, “We are enforcing the laws in the State of Indiana. It is against the law to possess controlled substances. That is the law the legislature passed. People in this community, we do not want anyone else to die. We don’t want that to happen.”

Criminal defense attorney Bill Frederick told the Indy Star that this new protocol in Hancock County is something that isn’t seen being used very often. “… the practice of charging a person with possession based on the drug being found in their system is unusual. But because state law isn’t explicit about what possession means, it could conceivably hold up in court.”

In the past, prosecutor had to rely on actually finding the drug or paraphernalia at the scene of an overdose.

Critics of the new course of action are afraid that criminalizing overdoses means more people will die, because those around the overdosed person will be afraid to call 911. They’re also worried that this new action will saddle people with felony charges for years to come, even after they’ve gotten sober.

One of this plan’s critics is Reg McCutcheon who works as the executive director of Landmark Recovery in Carmel. McCutcheon was recently interviewed by WTHR, where he voiced his concern with criminalizing overdoses.

McCutcheon told WTHR that addiction “is a disease and we’re criminalizing the disease side and that’s what we have to be mindful of. Statistics do not support forcing someone [into treatment]. We have a national average in excess of eight times before [those struggling with addiction] they find ways to get help.”

The executive director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Nicolas Terry, is also concerned about how Hancock County is choosing to combat addiction and overdose. He recently told the Indy Star that this “new protocol sends a dangerous message, particularly around the use of Naloxone. Since the use of the overdose reversal drug can be used as evidence of opioid use and ultimately drug possession.”

Terry added that these fears surrounding Naloxone might mean that fewer people will choose to possess the life-saving drug, fearing that they could be arrested and charged.

Prosecutor Eaton told the Indy Star that simply having Naloxone is not a reason to charge someone with possession of a controlled substance, but he also said it’s an indicator that someone has opiates in their system, which can tip off authorities.

Nicolas Terry thinks this type of approach will erode “trust between drug users and first responders, and could prevent people from calling 911.”

It should be interesting to see how this new protocol will affect the people of Hancock County, and as we start seeing results, we will bring you those updates.