Gov. signs immunity bill into law

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Friday a bill that protects from legal repercussions underage individuals who call 911 during an alcohol-related medical emergency.

AB 1999 was authored by state Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), whose intern, South Pasadena High School honor student Aydin Salek, died in December after consuming alcohol at a party. The new law goes into effect on Jan. 1.

"I am very excited that the governor saw the merit behind this idea of incentivizing our children to make good decisions," Portantino said. "When you have a personal connection to an issue, you fight even harder to get [the legislation] through the system."

The new law will provide limited immunity to up to two individuals under the age of 21 who seek assistance for, and remain with, a friend during an alcohol-related emergency. It is intended to protect only a few individuals who are acting in good faith, Portantino said. It does not protect a large group of people engaging in illegal behavior, nor does it protect individuals under the influence of illegal narcotics.

A number of states and colleges already are employing similar policies and the results are positive, Portantino said. He cited the Medical Amnesty Protocol implemented at Cornell University in 2002. After the school adopted and publicized its 911 immunity law, there was a 22% increase in the number of emergency medical calls on campus. And 61% of individuals said they felt less afraid to call for help on behalf of a friend. Further, the number of students visiting the student health center for alcohol counseling doubled.

"All the statistics show that this is a very effective tool to help save lives," Portantino said. "It is not about the drinking, it is about getting medical help to kids who need it."

Portantino initiated the legislation, which received strong bipartisan report, following a suggestion from La Cañada High School PTA President Kathy Hernandez, who read an article by Los Angeles Times reporter Maura Dolan about the alcohol-related death of a teenage boy in Orinda, Calif.

"[AB 1999] definitely doesn't advocate teen drinking, but we have to be realistic," Hernandez said. "There are a lot of underage people who drink; and if they are going to, I want them to be safe. If a kid is ever in a situation where they need medical help, or they can get medical help [for a friend], I hope everybody involved has the incentive to do what is right."

The new law comes at a time when residents and civic leaders in the foothills are debating how to most effectively address issues of underage drinking and drug use among local teenagers. The discussion has been driven, in part, by the death of Salek.

The popular student leader had set his sights on a career in public service and worked in Portantino's Pasadena office in the summer of 2009. On Dec. 12, two days before his 18th birthday, he consumed alcohol at a party in Altadena. He passed out, and his friends delayed calling 911, instead choosing to drive him home. He later died at Huntington Memorial Hospital.

Community leaders say they want to prevent another tragic death. Last month, the La Crescenta-based Crescenta Valley Drug and Alcohol Prevention Coalition received a $625,000 federal grant to further its mission. And parents in La Cañada called on their City Council last week to consider implementing a social-host ordinance, design to target adults and homeowners who furnish alcohol to minors.

The immunity law won't necessarily stop underage individuals from drinking alcohol, Portantino said, but it could save lives.

"When you send your children out into the world, you want them to make good choices, and you certainly want those around them to make good choices, and that is what this bill is all about," Portantino said.

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