- Underage drinking: Towns take a stand


Alcohol consumption among youth remains at an alarming level.
Alcohol consumption among youth remains at an alarming level.


In 2000, a state law took effect allowing municipalities “to enact local ordinances making it unlawful for any person under the legal age who, without legal authority, knowingly possesses or knowingly consumes an alcoholic beverage on private property.” The penalties can be stiff: a $250 fine for the first offense and $350 for any subsequent offense. Those younger than 17 could face a delay in receiving their driver's license, while those who already have their license could face a six-month suspension. 
The state law allowing towns to prohibit underage drinking on private property also provides: 
An exemption for underage people who may consume an alcoholic beverage in connection with a religious ceremony or observance, with the permission of a parent, guardian or relative who is of age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. 
An exemption for underage people involved in food preparation at a culinary arts program or in hotel management program at a county vocational school or post-secondary educational institution. 
Permission for municipalities to exempt from prosecution underage drinkers or others underage who witness a medical problem suffered by someone drinking and call police or an adult for help. 
People aged 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. 
More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binging drinks. 
On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers. 
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention



Bay Head police were frustrated. They would break up underage drinking parties and charge the youths with unlawful conduct, only to see the charges dismissed in municipal court.

“It’s a historic tradition ... it’s kids drinking. And apparently you can have a house full of 13-year-olds drinking (alcoholic beverages) and none of them would be subjected to a fine if they are caught,” said Borough Councilman John M. Berko.

That’s what troubled the town fathers in that 2-square-mile, upscale Ocean County community, as it has elsewhere in New Jersey. It was not only the inability to effectively police underage drinking, but also the age of the drinkers.

“What concerns me the most is that it seems the drinkers are younger now,” said Bay Head Mayor William W. Curtis, who has lived in the borough all of his 68 years. “We used to get high school-age kids having the parties, but now we’ve had kids as young as 13 having drinking parties.”

So, Bay Head did what an increasing number of municipalities in New Jersey have done, or are being urged to do: It took advantage of a state law specifically allowing it to prohibit underage drinking on private property, through a local ordinance.

Acting Police Chief Robert F. Hoffman Jr. said his request for the ordinance was prompted by a few underage drinking parties involving young teenagers in the past two years, and the dismissal of unlawful conduct charges in municipal court because the drinking had occurred on private property.

Now, under the ordinance adopted Monday, those convicted of underage drinking in Bay Head face a fine — $250 for a first offense and $350 for subsequent offenses.

Bay Head isn’t alone in taking action. The Beach Haven Borough Council will hold a public hearing on a similar ordinance on Sept. 12. Somerset County has initiated an effort to get all of its 21 municipalities to adopt the ordinance (to date, nine have done so). Middlesex Borough in Middlesex County, despite criticism, has adopted the ordinance, making it the 17th out of 25 municipalities there to do so. And in Morris County, 21 out of 39 municipalities have enacted measures prohibiting those under 21 from consuming alcohol on private property.

Bonnie Delaney: 732-557-5738; bdelaney@