By Audrey Dutton
Amy Johnson was in the Ada County Jail and didn’t know what she’d done.
Two days earlier, Johnson had called a friend to pick her up from work. She has bipolar disorder and felt a manic episode coming on. Colors were getting brighter. Her thoughts ricocheted from one thing to another. She couldn’t sleep.
Her friend and boyfriend were ready to help her through it — with written instructions Amy had given them in case this ever happened. But instead of getting well at a psychiatric hospital, the 41-year-old university employee was arrested. She could face up to six years in prison.
“I’m feeling terrible right now. I break down in tears every time I have to talk about it,” Johnson said. “… Every time I go to court or every time I think about this charge, [it’s a reminder that] someone thinks that I’m a bad person because they’re charging me with this and that I need to pay a penalty for this.”
Johnson is one of hundreds of Idahoans charged under a law passed in 2014 making battery against health care workers a felony.
Nurses, paramedics, security guards, emergency room doctors and others who work on the front lines of health care have among the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. They’re four times more likely than other private-sector employees to be attacked and severely injured on the job, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The 2014 law was intended to protect those workers. It also had cultural importance — making it clear that health care workers are specifically worth defending.
But as it made its way through the Idaho Legislature, an exemption for mental illness was removed.
Idaho Prosecuting Attorney Association lobbyist Holly Koole told lawmakers at the time that “the criminal justice system provides numerous safeguards for the mentally ill or vulnerable who cannot form the intent to commit a crime,” according to minutes from the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.
Johnson’s attorney, Sean Beck, calls that “a complete misrepresentation of the facts.”