PHOENIX — The next time you see someone in distress and pull out your phone to record it, rather than calling 911, you could risk going to jail.
On a 4-3, party-line margin, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to make it a crime to for someone who knows another person is exposed to a life-threatening emergency to fail to notify responsible officials. If the measure becomes law, violators could end up behind bars for up to six months and face a fine of up to $2,500.
Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the impetus was an incident last year in Florida where teens decided to tape a 32-year-old disabled man while he was drowning in a fenced-off pond. The video also has audio of the teens laughing off-camera as the man pleaded for help before he eventually disappeared below the surface.
There were no calls to 911 from the teens.
Local officials said the teens had not violated any Florida laws. Kavanagh told colleagues he wants to plug that gap, at least in Arizona.
A law already requires people to save others if that can be done safely. But Kavanagh said that applies only when someone has a “special relationship” with the person in distress, like a parent, doctor, scout leader or an emergency medical technician.
Kavanagh said he’s not going that far when strangers are involved.
“I’m not requiring people to give first aid, to jump in and drag people out of the water,” he said. “All this bill says is when people don’t have a duty to act and can easily and safely notify the authorities that somebody is dying, that to save this person’s life they have to do it.”
He called it “unfortunate” when the state has to legislate morality.
“But, unfortunately, we do,” Kavanagh said.
Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, questioned how this might be enforced. For example, he asked how police would know who to charge in a situation where there are multiple people who witness something.
Then there’s the issue of what is a “life-threatening emergency,” something not defined in SB 1016. Contreras questioned whether that might be a child out in 115-degree heat with no water.
Kavanagh conceded the point. In fact, he suggested that if his measure becomes law, it might be unenforceable.
“Will there be prosecutions?” he said. “I really doubt it.”
He argued, though, that the law becomes “a statement that tells the people that there are certain things that are so bad that they deserve to be labeled ‘illegal.’ “
“I think we need to send a clear message that this is what, if you’re a member of our society, you are expected to do,” Kavanagh said.
The argument to create a new crime solely to send a message drew derision from Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa.
“If we were following your logic, we would have no text and driving,” Worsley said, pointing out that Arizona lawmakers have consistently rejected measures to make that practice illegal. In fact, it took until 2017 for legislators to ban texting for the state’s newest teen drivers.
“We’re killing five, six thousand people a year in America, and we won’t make that a misdemeanor or some other crime to use your phone in your car, doing much more damage than two kids that saw somebody drowning and thought it was funny,” Worsley said. But he ended up voting for the bill to give Kavanagh a chance to see if it can be made more acceptable to him before it goes to the full Senate.
Not Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale.
“We shouldn’t be using our criminal code, our penal code, to send a message or make a statement,” he said. Quezada said if that’s Kavanagh’s goal, he should, instead, craft a public service announcement.
“I’d be happy to do that with the sponsor,” he said.