We have read recent press reports and opinions of proponents for an expanded drinking ordinance in New Providence and recognize the importance of publishing another point of view.
Efforts to pass an underage drinking ordinance in New Providence have been underway for over seven years. In fact, there have been three separate times when virtually the same ordinance has been presented to Borough Council. Each time, complete presentations on the merits of the ordinance were made and carefully evaluated by the Council.
When first considered in 2004, the ordinance did not receive enough support to be introduced. In the fall of 2009, after thorough discussion of the ordinance with the Municipal Alliance, the police, police of neighboring municipalities, the county prosecutor’s office and the municipal prosecutor, a modified version was passed that limited applicability to persons age 17 or under. This was a compromise, as a majority of Council would not support application of the ordinance to everyone under age 21.
At the February 28, 2011 Council meeting, a presentation was made by the Alliance and the Police advocating expansion of its coverage to people under age 21 rather than limiting applicability to ages 17 and under as was approved just a year earlier. As was the case on two prior occasions, Council heard, discussed and entertained all of the arguments in favor of expanding the ordinance and a majority of Council chose to continue limiting its applicability to ages 17 and under.
Without consulting a single member of Borough Council, the Mayor put the very same ordinance back on the agenda and again invited the Alliance to the April 25, 2011 meeting. The ordinance clearly did not have the support of Council so it was removed from the agenda. Those who question why this ordinance has not passed despite repeated attempts to introduce it should consider the following.
A number of laws and ordinances at the State and Municipal level already regulate possession or consumption of alcohol by people under 21. There are laws against possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages in public places and motor vehicles, laws against driving while intoxicated, laws against serving alcohol to anyone under 21 in private or public places, laws against making your home available for the consumption of alcohol by anyone under 21 and our own ordinance which makes it a local offense for anyone age 17 or under to consume or possess alcohol on private property. In addition to criminal prosecution for providing alcohol to anyone under age 21, there are also civil codes and case law that impose liability for someone who serves alcohol to anyone under age 21 who is later hurt or hurts others as a result of their intoxication.
As Americans, we are privileged to enjoy established protection against unreasonable searches and seizures in both our State and federal Constitutions. These protections were not placed in our state and federal constitutions because all governmental authority is bad and prone towards abuse of the rights of innocent citizens. However, the drafters of these documents were wise enough to realize that exercise of police power by the State presents opportunity for abuse that should not be left unchecked. That is precisely why our courts and legislatures have required a warrant to search for evidence of a crime except in certain circumstances that make the warrant requirement itself unreasonable. Exceptions to the warrant requirement include, among others, emergent circumstances that pose a threat to public health or safety, searches incident to an arrest or evidence in plain sight.
No location is more private to citizens than their home. In adopting the current ordinance limited in applicability to those 17 years of age or under, the right to privacy of our residents in their homes was carefully balanced against the potential need for police officers to enter into a home to ensure the health, safety or welfare of our residents, most of all minors. The existing New Providence ordinance gives the police the authority to enter into a private residence if they believe that the ordinance is being violated. In addition, under what is called the “Community Caretaker Exception” to the warrant requirement the police can enter a private residence if there is a reasonable suspicion that the health, safety or welfare of a drinker of any age, is in jeopardy. Thus, the suggestion that the existing ordinance does not let the police do their job is not supported by the data supplied to the Council by the police and is just plain wrong.
Casual statements in the press notwithstanding, no facts or statistics have been provided to support the charge that New Providence houses are hosting parties and out of town youth are flocking to New Providence to drink because we don’t have an underage alcohol ordinance that applies to 18, 19 and 20 year olds.
The members of Council have not acted lightly and are certainly concerned about the welfare of the minors and young adults in New Providence. A vote against amending the ordinance should not be viewed as a lack of respect for the Alliance or the police. Rather, our citizens should be aware that when confronted with such profound issues as our residents’ right to privacy juxtaposed against an issue of public safety, Council will carefully weigh the facts and reach sound policy decisions based on thorough discussion, research and judgment.
Michael M Gennaro