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December 08, 2023

Underage drinkers in N.J. could face new penalties after Senate panel approves bill

Legislators say the rules — which would subject those under the age of 21 found with alcohol to a $50 fine and a complaint summons — are needed to address parties at the Jersey Shore

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New Jersey Underage Drinkers Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Legislators who supported the new penalties said they are needed to address disruptive parties in Jersey Shore towns, while opponents said the penalties will unnecessarily send young people into the criminal justice system.

A Senate panel approved a bill Thursday that would create new penalties for underage alcohol possession over the complaints of advocates who said the shift would send more young people into the criminal justice system.

The bill, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 9-2 vote, would subject individuals under the age of 21 found to possess alcohol to a $50 fine and a complaint summons, the equivalent of a disorderly persons offense.

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Legislators who supported the bill said the change is needed to address parties in Jersey Shore towns that local officials have decried as chaotic and disruptive, and to provide some measure of enforcement for underage users who flout drinking laws.

“I’ve been the mayor of a small town most of my adult life … I’ll tell you this: Since we’ve done that, high school kids, brazenly, are just walking around with an open container of beer because they think they can flaunt it,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who is also the mayor of Wood-Ridge.

Like existing law, the bill advanced Thursday would require a written parental notification if the violator is under the age of 18.

The bill is something of a reversal for Trenton Democrats, who barred criminal charges and parental notifications for underage drinkers and marijuana smokers when they approved legislation that launched the state’s legal cannabis market in 2021. That law included a provision that exposed police to a deprivation of civil rights charge if they violated its provisions, as by searching a minor, for example. 

Though lawmakers reversed the law’s prohibition on parental notifications just one month later, the prohibition on criminal charges for minors has remained in effect. Advocates want it to stay that way.

“The Office of the Attorney General has made clear that New Jersey law enforcement continues to have broad authority to address disruptive or unlawful conduct,” said Ami Kachalia, a campaign strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Republicans and law enforcement officials have urged their Democratic colleagues to alter the law, saying it leaves police officers in a state of limbo, unsure what conduct could expose them to civil rights charges.

The bill advanced Thursday would raise the bar for such charges against an officer, requiring a finding that they sought to discriminate or intimidate a minor on the basis of a protected class, like race, gender, or sexual orientation.

“If you found that the officer is guilty of that, that’s fine: Charge the officer, but to blankly say that every officer that’s going to mistakenly assume somebody’s — maybe juvenile, maybe not — to assume that officer is depriving them of their civil rights, that’s ludicrous,” said Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association. “The vast majority of our members are doing this to provide safety.”

It’s not clear that any New Jersey police officer has faced charges stemming from the statute.

The Office of the Attorney General never published semi-annual reports, required by the original legislation, detailing how often police encounter minors consuming marijuana or alcohol, legislators said, and a task force meant to recommend changes to the law was never formed.

“It’ll be interesting to know whether or not some of what’s being spoken about here by our members is, in fact, the case,” said Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), who chaired the meeting and voted against the bill.

Advocates, meanwhile, said it is far better to bar cops from charging minors than it is to send young people into the criminal justice system over minor drug or alcohol offenses. They also said there is little evidence that fines discourage substance use.

“This is not the first time children and alcohol or any substance have come into contact with each other,” said Austin Edwards, senior policy counsel for Salvation and Social Justice. “This has been ongoing, so fines, in and of themselves, clearly have demonstrably shown that they don’t change any use.”

One lawmaker questioned why the bill would allow fines for underage alcohol consumption use but continue to bar penalties for underage marijuana use.

“What bothers me is if there’s 12 kids sitting on the street corner and six are drinking beer and six are smoking marijuana, the second a police officer rolls up, the six kids drinking a beer are going to get a summons and a fine and the six kids smoking the joint are going to be told to go home,” said Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris). “What the hell are we doing?”

The Assembly unanimously approved an identical bill in June. Because the Senate bill will cause a slight increase to state tax revenues — its fine is expected to raise tens of thousands of dollars annually — it must be approved by the chamber’s budget committee before reaching a vote on the Senate floor.

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