Reports are circulating that a New Jersey town is considering giving its police officers the right to search homes without a warrant to find teenagers who are drinking underage -- but there's some confusion on whether police already have that authority.
A proposed ordinance in Montville, New Jersey, could give police officers broad powers – including entering private property – if underage drinking is even suspected, according to WCBS-TV. The ordinance would allow police to search homes with probable cause, and without a warrant, if they suspect underage drinking.
The proposal has provoked a significant level of controversy, so much so neither the mayor, the police chief, nor members of the Montville Township Committee -- the community's governing body -- would respond to local reporter's questions about it. Reason.com reports:
Presumably supporters of the ordinance are relying on the "exigent circumstances" exception to the usual Fourth Amendment requirement of a warrant to search someone's home without consent. According to a gloss by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, "exigent circumstances are present when a reasonable person [would] believe that entry...was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of the suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts."
The exigent circumstances argument may also open the window to a part of the new regulations that homeowners, and parents, see as an upside. Along with the right to enter residences without a warrant, the ordinance would allow police more leeway with teens caught drinking and face criminal charges under state law; officers under the Montville proposal could choose to let underage drinkers face lesser penalties.
“They are kids, and kids make mistakes, and they need to understand the consequences, but I don’t think it needs to be on their college application or somehow affect them in the future,” guidance counselor Debbie Meenan, told WCBS.
The Montville City Council held a meeting Tuesday to discuss the ordnance, and all but one council member agrees with the plan. You can listen to their discussion here:
There seems to be some confusion on the interpretation of the ordnance, however, according to one local lawer.
"It appears to me there's a lot of misinformation out there," Montville attorney Fred Semrau said. "This ordinance is no different than the 300 or so that have already been adopted throughout the state."
Semrau said the proposed ordinance would make it illegal for minors to possess or consume alcohol on private property without authorization from their parents, guardians or other adult family members. Without such the ordinance — authorized under a 2000 state law — police had no ability to penalize teens for underage drinking that didn't occur in public.
If the ordnance passes a majority vote at a future meeting, it could go into effect, but Semrau said police would have the exact same powers to enter a private home as they do now.
"All the same rules apply," he said.
If police have probable cause to think teens are drinking at a party without authorization from adult relatives, they can already enter a home — because the homeowner can be held criminally responsible for allowing teens access to the alcohol, Seamru said. And absent the ordinance, that's the only action police can take to deter underage drinking in private homes, he said.
Ironically, some local Montville teens shared their frustration with the concept, saying it would give police too much discretion.
“I just feel that it’s not really their business to be going into people’s houses,” Brendan Zevits, a local high school senior, told WCBS. “If you want to do that, you need to get a warrant.” Another high school senior, Stephen McManus, agreed.
“Just coming in our houses searching – eventually, it’s going to turn into hunches and all that, and once you base it on a hunch, then it’s all downhill from there,” he said.
What do you think? Would you want this ordnance passed in your town, allowing officers to search your home, but offering greater leeway in how underage drinking incidents are processed by officers of the law?