Illegal drugs spotted by law enforcement officers during an emergency "good Samaritan" call to prevent a fatal overdose can be used as probable cause to obtain a search warrant, the Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
The decision clears the way for drug possession charges to be reinstated against Angela Joy Derstine of Clay County in northwestern Minnesota. Her defense attorney, Brian Toay of Fargo, said it could result in future reluctance to placing lifesaving phone calls in the event of an overdose "if they think they're going to be scrutinized heavily when the police arrive."
Under Minnesota law, a good Samaritan who calls 911 in the event of an overdose cannot be prosecuted for possessing, sharing or using a controlled substance. But the Court of Appeals said the law doesn't bar police from using information gained during the rescue to investigate other crimes.
Toay said he plans to ask the state Supreme Court to take the case. He said North Dakota recently passed laws that give stronger protections to good Samaritans in overdose calls.
The Minnesota case began in April 2019 when police went to a mobile home in response to a call about a drug overdose. The victim admitted to overdosing on narcotics, the court said. Derstine was not at the home during that incident.
A person identified only as S.K., who was at the home, told police that the victim, who was not identified, uses methamphetamine daily. Police also learned that the owner of the mobile home, who was also not identified, allowed S.K. to live there.
During the rescue visit, police saw in plain view a plastic, zip-sealed baggie containing a small white crystal "consistent with" meth, the ruling said. They never tested the contents.
Police successfully used the sighting of the baggie as part of a search warrant application to a judge.
A few weeks later, officers returned to the mobile home with a warrant when Derstine was there with S.K. Derstine told police S.K. regularly sold her meth. Officers found eight tablets of Clonazepam, a controlled substance, in Derstine's purse and she was charged with fifth-degree possession.
During the search, law enforcement found "numerous" bags of meth packaged for sale along with cash, drug paraphernalia and marijuana, the court said.
Toay had persuaded the lower court to throw out the evidence against Derstine, arguing that without the information obtained during the April Good Samaritan 911 call, there was no probable cause to support a warrant.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that immunity under the good Samaritan law protects a specific person "acting in good faith who seeks medical assistance for another person who is experiencing a drug-related overdose," which wouldn't extend to Derstine.
Further, the judges wrote, the statute "also protects only that specific person against certain specified charges if the 'evidence for the charge or prosecution was obtained as a result of the person's seeking medical assistance for another person.' "
The court also reasoned that the information provided in the warrant included more than what was observed during the overdose call, including informant information and a search of garbage bags outside the residence that revealed drug paraphernalia and residue.
The matter was decided by Judges Lucinda Jesson, Kevin Ross and retired Judge John Smith.