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State v. Mercier

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

March 15, 2019

THE STATE
v.
MERCIER.

          GOBEIL, COOMER, and HODGES, JJ.

          COOMER, JUDGE.

         The State filed an accusation against Ryan Emory Mercier, charging him with one count each of possession of hydrocodone and possession of clonazepam. Because Mercier was suffering from a drug overdose when he was found by police officers following multiple 911 telephone calls, he filed a motion for immunity pursuant to OCGA § 16-13-5 (the "Georgia 9-1-1 Medical Amnesty Law"; see Ga. L. 2014, p. 683, § 1-1 (not codified)). Following a hearing, the Superior Court of Houston County granted Mercier's motion. The State appeals, [1] arguing that the trial court erred in ruling that the plain language of OCGA § 16-13-5 (b) provides immunity to a person suffering from a drug overdose "who is helped by the kindness of strangers who certainly did not stop to consider the choice between death and prosecution. . ." Because we conclude that Mercier was entitled to the immunity offered by the statute, we affirm.

         "On appeal of an order granting or denying a motion for immunity from prosecution, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's ruling, and we accept the trial court's findings with regard to questions of fact and credibility if there is any evidence to support them." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) State v. Pickens, 330 Ga.App. 862, 864 (769 S.E.2d 594) (2015). However, "[t]he trial court's application of the law is subject to de novo appellate review." (Citation omitted.) Id.

         At the outset, we note that the findings of fact entered by the trial court are sparse.[2] Viewed in a light most favorable to the trial court's order, evidence adduced during a pretrial hearing revealed that at least three passersby telephoned 911 to report a man lying unconscious on the roadway next to a white car. It is undisputed that none of these passersby suggested that the man was suffering from a drug overdose; rather, the callers thought the man was the victim of a hit-and-run. Upon arrival, a first responder suspected that Mercier may have overdosed.[3] In addition, a responding police officer testified that he looked in the center console of Mercier's vehicle for identification and found a plastic bag with four yellow pills and one white pill, although the trial court did not include a finding of fact based upon the officer's testimony.

         After the State filed an accusation against Mercier, he moved for immunity from prosecution pursuant to OCGA § 16-13-5, arguing that "his arrest and prosecution is solely based on the drugs that were found in his vehicle while he was receiving medical assistance for a drug overdose." In response, the State asserted that Mercier is not entitled to immunity because officers were responding to a "possible motor vehicle accident" and that the evidence seized "was not found 'solely from seeking . . . medical assistance.'" In its order granting Mercier's motion for immunity, the trial court observed that "there is no question [Mercier] was suffering from a drug overdose" and that immunity "clearly applies to one who is overdosing if he calls for . . . help, to a friend or family member who calls to help him or a defendant, likely using as well, who was arrested because he called to help another." The trial court also held that the plain language of the statute extends this immunity "to one such as [Mercier] who is helped by the kindness of strangers who certainly did not stop to consider the choice between death and prosecution in making the call." This appeal followed.

         In its sole enumeration of error, the State contends that the trial court erred in granting Mercier's request for immunity "[b]ecause the emergency call was for a suspected hit and run and not a drug overdose. . . ." We disagree. As a threshold matter, we note that

[i]t is elementary that in all interpretations of statutes, the courts shall look diligently for the intention of the General Assembly. In so doing, the ordinary signification shall be applied to all words. Where the language of a statute is plain and susceptible to only one natural and reasonable construction, courts must construe the statute accordingly. In fact, where the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous, judicial construction is not only unnecessary but forbidden.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Chase v. State, 285 Ga. 693, 695 (2) (681 S.E.2d 116) (2009). Similarly, "when interpreting a statute, all its words must be given due weight; we are forbidden to 'read out' any words in the statute unless a clear reason appears for doing so." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) AgSouth Farm Credit, ACA v. Gowen Timber Co., 336 Ga.App. 581, 589 (2) (b) (i) (784 S.E.2d 913) (2016). To that end, we must avoid "a statutory construction that will render some of the statutory language mere surplusage[.]" Kennedy v. Carlton, 294 Ga. 576, 578 (2) (757 S.E.2d 46) (2014). "Finally, in construing the statute so as to give effect to the legislative intent a mere segment of the statute should not be lifted out of context and construed without consideration of all the other parts of the statute." (Citation omitted.) City of Jesup v. Bennett, 226 Ga. 606, 609 (2) (176 S.E.2d 81) (1970).

         Therefore, our starting point is OCGA § 16-13-5 (b), [4] which provides, in pertinent part

Any person who in good faith seeks medical assistance for a person experiencing or believed to be experiencing a drug overdose shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug violation if the evidence for the arrest, charge, or prosecution of such drug violation resulted solely from seeking such medical assistance. Any person who is experiencing a drug overdose and, in good faith, seeks medical assistance for himself or herself or is the subject of such a request[5] shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug violation if the evidence for the arrest, charge, or prosecution of such drug violation resulted solely from seeking such medical assistance. . . .

         Our review begins with the second sentence of OCGA § 16-13-5 (b), [6] which provides that "[a]ny person who is experiencing a drug overdose and, in good faith, seeks medical assistance for himself or herself or is the subject of [a request for medical assistance] shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug violation if the evidence for the arrest, charge, or prosecution of such drug violation resulted solely from seeking such medical assistance." Nothing in the statute requires the caller to subjectively conclude that the subject of the call is experiencing a drug overdose in order for the statute's protections to apply.

         Mercier was a person experiencing a drug overdose. He became the subject of a request for medical assistance when three people called 911 to report he was lying in the street next to his car. One of those callers believed he may have been hit by a car and the other two did not offer their belief as to how he came to be lying in the street. Emergency responders were dispatched on the basis of the calls. Without the calls from bystanders, no emergency responders, including law enforcement officers, would have been on the scene. Law enforcement officers were present solely because the bystanders called for medical assistance to Mercier. While on the scene, a law enforcement officer searched Mercier's car and found the pills that became the evidence in support of the prosecution. On these facts, the statute provides protection from prosecution to Mercier.

         Therefore, based upon the plain language of OCGA § 16-13-5, we conclude that Mercier qualifies for immunity because his prosecution was the result of being the subject of a request for medical assistance while he was experiencing a ...


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