Virginia has a new “Good Samaritan” law designed to protect people who call 911 for a drug-related health emergency from criminal prosecution. But one Virginia woman is being charged with methamphetamine possession after she and a witness called 911 over her allegedly meth-related suicidal condition.
In September 2019, 25-year-old Kodie Brooke Weatherholtz of Front Royal experienced a mental health crisis at her home. According to her mother, she had used methamphetamine that day. Weatherholtz and a man who was present each called 911 to report that she was paranoid, delusional and suicidal. She reportedly said she saw dead bodies and wanted to shoot herself, then ran into the road before police stopped her.
Weatherholtz was then confined to a hospital, with police giving her a Temporary Detention Order. After the incident she was charged with meth possession. Her attorney challenged the legitimacy of this charge, citing Virginia’s which was passed and signed into law in the spring, and took effect in July. The law promises that if someone experiences a “life-threatening condition” related to drugs, they will not be arrested or prosecuted if they or a bystander call for help.
But on October 6, Frederick County circuit court Judge William W. Eldridge IV ruled that Weatherholtz is not protected under the law. He cited testimony from the man at the scene that she was acting erratically the night before and leading up to the incident. He suggested that the problem was not primarily drug-related but really a mental health emergency—and that this should not grant her immunity.
“You’re asking me to have an expansive ruling that mental illness combined with drug use gives full immunity,” Eldridge “If I take it out far enough, anything can be life-threatening.”
The defense attorney argued unsuccessfully that Virginia’s law was purposely written to apply not just to a drug overdose or loss of consciousness, but to any drug-involved emergency. He said that Weatherholtz clearly fit that definition, as illustrated by the fact that she was ordered into a hospital.
So why does Judge Eldridge want to see Weatherholtz prosecuted rather than grant her immunity? The likely outcome if her case continues is that she will be given a plea deal and offered to take it to drug court. When state lawmakers first proposed SB 677 earlier this year, , arguing that it would take away their ability to divert people with drug charges into drug courts. Rather than give drug-emergency victims immunity, prosecutors want them to undergo mandatory drug treatment.
That might sound logical or even compassionate to some. But both drug courts and mandatory treatment are deeply problematic on an ethical level, and frequently ineffective or harmful on a practical level. The treatment programs that defendants are coerced into often have no scientific or medical value, violate patients’ rights, and deny them effective medications like methadone or buprenorphine.
The breadth of Virginia’s new law, which was apparently designed to encompass the widest possible range of drug harms, is welcome. But its real-world benefits will be severely limited if it is interpreted in this way.
Judge Eldridge’s point that mental illness does not give you immunity from prosecution may be correct legally—but how is it justifiable morally? By definition, a delusional or suicidal episode requires medical care, not police and jail-time. A further serious problem in a case that has so many is that the only people who were sent to help Weatherholtz during her crisis were the police.