ELKHART — Last year, a new law was passed in Indiana with a goal to cut down the number of young people dying from alcohol poisoning. To meet that goal, the Lifeline law offers immunity to underage drinkers — meaning they won’t be charged with minor consumption or other alcohol-related charges — if they call for medical help for a friend.
But the politician who authored the law — State Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, said recently that the message isn’t getting to young people like he had hoped.
“It is very difficult to educate those who need to be educated (about the Lifeline law),” Merritt said on Sept. 5. “I think people are concerned with their own lives. I think that there are so many competitive news messages out there that it’s just hard to break through.”
Merritt said that he and his team have filmed a public service announcement about the Lifeline law and they are trying to raise money to fund marketing efforts. But they are “working on a shoestring budget,” Merritt said. Merritt has also recently teamed up with Big Red Liquors, a liquor store chain located primarily in southern Indiana, to raise awareness for the law.
“The bottom line is, we need to continue to inform,” Merritt said. “(Over the past year) I have learned that there will always be a 17-year-old to inform and educate about (this law). There will always be a need to talk about it.”
The law is targeted at juniors and seniors in high school and at college freshmen, Merritt said. The Indiana Lifeline law website lists university policies from Indiana University, Purdue University and Ball State University. These policies seek to encourage students to call for help without fearing disciplinary action from their school.
Spokespeople for several area colleges recently shared their policies on underage drinking situations where the Lifeline law might be used.
Bethel College representative Erin Kinzel said the school’s student guidelines address a situation where a student who had been drinking needs medical assistance. The guidelines read, “In cases where a student self-reports and/or shows a desire for change, every attempt will be made to assist and restore the student.”
Kinzel added that Bethel College policies are written in a way that puts the health and safety of students above any type of disciplinary action.
Jodi Beyeler, a representative of Goshen College, said that the school has no written policy that addresses the Lifeline law. She added that the school would probably follow the lead of civic authorities if they implemented the law, but said that the situation has never come up.
Ivy Tech Community College Chancellor Thomas Coley said that Ivy Tech policy prohibits use of alcohol on college property. However, he pointed out that the average age of Ivy Tech students is 28 and that the college does not have residential housing where recent high school graduates would be living.
University of Notre Dame spokesperson Dennis Brown said that the university has not specifically addressed the Lifeline law with students.
It’s an issue here
Underage drinking is a problem in Elkhart County, according to Ed Windbigler, chief investigator for the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s office. “You don’t have to look very far to see how many arrests or citations are issued,” Windbigler said on Sept. 9. “It’s an issue everywhere, I think.”
He said the prosecutor’s office has not yet dealt with the Lifeline law in any local cases involving underage drinking. But if a young person were to claim immunity under the law, Windbigler said they would be eligible if all the required circumstances were met.
“Unfortunately, if (the young person) calls for help and then they leave, or if they call and don’t give police their information or help the investigation, they wouldn’t be eligible,” Windbigler said.
He continued, sharing his belief that many local people aren’t aware of the Lifeline law.
“A lot of people do not realize that (immunity under the Lifeline law) is available,” he said. “I think people live in their own worlds and don’t worry about what’s on the books because 90 percent of people aren’t doing anything wrong. Unless the law deals with you specifically ... a lot of people do not pay attention to new laws that come out.”
He continued, “I think more kids need to know about this (law). But how do we get it to the forefront?”
What you need to know about the law
The Lifeline law went into effect July 1, 2012. It provides immunity for some alcohol-related offenses to Indiana residents who request medical assistance for someone in need, according to the Indiana Lifeline law website.
The alcohol-related offenses listed in the law include public intoxication, minor possession, minor consumption and minor transport. However, it doesn’t protect individuals from being prosecuted for other criminal offenses such as providing to a minor, operating while intoxicated or possession of a controlled substance.
People calling for medical help for someone else must be prepared to give their full name and any other information requested to police. They must also remain on the scene until police or emergency medical personnel arrive, and cooperate with authorities.
To find out more about the Lifeline law visit the website www.indianalifeline.org.