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Virginia GOP: No Incentives To Save A Life

How much of an incentive do teenagers--or any of us, for that matter--need to do the right thing for an obviously suffering or even dying friend?

Last June, two Loudoun County teenagers panicked when their friend drank too much rum, passed out and died. The teens took Peter Cathcart Vold's body to a nearby elementary school parking lot and dumped it there.

Those teenagers are now facing serious charges of concealing a body.

But would they have acted differently if they knew that Virginia law would cut them a break, in effect allowing the state to ignore any underage drinking if teens act as good Samaritans and call 911 on behalf of their endangered friend?

A bill proposed in the House of Delegates in Richmond this month asked Virginia legislators to decide whether it's more important to persuade people to act with compassion for their fellow man or to hold those same people accountable for their own misdeeds. The bill, by Fairfax Democrat Del. Chuck Caputo, would have also given a break to adults who have provided alcohol to underage drinkers if those adults then summoned the police or an ambulance to help any overimbibing teens.

The criminal subcommittee of the House Courts Committee Monday scrapped the bill by a 7-5 vote; the members voted strictly along party lines, with the Republican majority shelving the bill for this year, and Democrats expressing support for the idea.

It's important to note that the leniency proposed under the bill would not have been automatic; rather, judges would be permitted to give teens or adults a break if they had done the right thing and called for help.

Still, the notion of letting off adults who endanger the lives of other people's children by giving them alcohol or hosting drinking parties strikes me as a step way too far. I'm more open to the idea that teenagers, who naturally tend to flee at the prospect of their wayward behavior being discovered by adults, might benefit from a little nudge toward doing the right thing. But again, I'm skeptical: How likely is it that such a law would become common enough knowledge among teenagers that the policy would alter how they handle themselves in a moment of crisis? Not very likely at all, methinks.

The Washington Regional Alcohol Program, an advocacy group that lobbies for tougher anti-drunk driving measures in the area, supported Caputo's bill, though executive director Kurt Erickson acknowledged there are plenty of thoughtful people who could not bring themselves to make this trade-off.

Put me in that category: Yes, judges should have the leeway to reward teens who step forward to save a friend's life, and yes, it is churlish to prosecute with vigor kids whose underage drinking only becomes known to the authorities because they've sought to help a friend. But adults deserve no such break. When this bill comes back, as it will, legislators should separate teens from adults and rewrite the measure to provide an incentive to those who are just learning how to be good citizens, while staying tough on those who ought to know better.

What's your view?

By Marc Fisher |  January 28, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
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Comments

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I think cutting a break to teens that eventually do the right thing makes complete sense.

With adults it is trickier. A middle-aged adult supplying teenagers with alcohol shouldn't be able to avoid punishment. But, it might make sense to show leniency for an adult college student hosting party where some/most of the attendees as under-age.

I guess I come down on the side of allowing a judge to show leniency, but not requiring it.

Posted by: jerryravens | January 28, 2009 11:51 AM

I think cutting a break to teens that eventually do the right thing makes complete sense.

With adults it is trickier. A middle-aged adult supplying teenagers with alcohol shouldn't be able to avoid punishment. But, it might make sense to show leniency for an adult college student hosting party where some/most of the attendees are under-age.

I guess I come down on the side of allowing a judge to show leniency, but not requiring it.

Posted by: jerryravens | January 28, 2009 11:52 AM

Allowing underage teenagers access to alcohol is unlawful. But the statistics show (and everyone knows from their time in High School and College) that teenagers drink. If you don't allow teenagers to drink in a supervised manor, they will find a place to drink unsupervised. Much like water behind a dam during a storm - either give the water a controlled overflow, or it will find a way around.

Parents are faced with a difficult decision - allow their teenagers to drink under supervision, or hope they don't get in trouble drinking somewhere unsupervised.

We have created a situation where the law is detached from reality, forcing parents in to a difficult conundrum. We should respond by encouraging good faith acts, not push parents to make even harder judgments about calling for help.

Judges should have latitude to make this judgment call, with no arbitrary age boundaries created by legislators who never face the problem directly.

Posted by: Jonathan7 | January 28, 2009 11:57 AM

We're supposed to learn that our decisions have consequences. Allowing teenagers -- who should know better -- to have their actions excused because they called for help doesn't add up in my mind. I can't imaging ever saying, "Your mother and I are so proud you didn't leave your friend to die in a ditch that we're not going to punish you. I'd like to think out standards and expectations are a higher.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | January 28, 2009 12:56 PM

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