Hunterdon County prosecutor urges underage drinking bans on private property


Hunterdon County prosecutor urges underage drinking bans on private property

Published: Wednesday, June 08, 2011, 5:58 PM     Updated: Wednesday, June 08, 2011, 6:45 PM
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There are 26 municipalities in Hunterdon, but only two of them have ordinances forbidding those under the age of 21 from consuming alcohol on private property.

The mayors of the other 24 recently received a letter from County Prosecutor Anthony Kearns. He wants them to adopt rules similar to those in Clinton and West Amwell townships and he’s given them a model ordinance that he says will pass legal muster.

Kearns favors the ordinance because state law prohibits alcohol consumption by minors only on public property. So if police are dispatched to a home, such as on a noise complaint, and they see minors drinking alcohol, “they are powerless to issue any summonses unless there is evidence of some other violation,” he wrote to the mayors.

And while a minor on private property might be charged under other rules, such as disorderly conduct, a criminal-related charge could haunt them for years, he said.

Kearns doesn’t take credit for the idea, but said it was suggested by Lesley Gabel, associate executive director of Hunterdon Prevention Resources. Gabel said the initiative sprang from seeing both good news and bad news about alcohol use in Hunterdon.

The good news, Gabel said, is that the county’s liquor stores are well below the state average in selling alcohol to minors. Surveys of middle school students show alcohol use by students in the past 30 days at 5.7%, below the state average of 10.7%. And surveys of county high school students show their reported drunkenness is well below the state average.

Those data prompt Gabel to ask why Hunterdon high school seniors are well above average for reporting drunkenness. She said 64% of county seniors report drunkenness during the previous 12 months; the national average is 48%.

The discrepancies helped her agency qualify for a $1 million Drug Free Communities grant to do something about it, The ordinance; education; and the cooperation of school officials, local officials, business partners and parents are key components of her plan.

Opposition to ordinances such as Kearns has proposed is often based on misunderstanding, Gabel said. The purpose is only to target youth obtaining liquor without a parent’s permission. It will still be legal for parents to serve alcohol to their own child. It will still be legal for a minor to consume or possess alcohol as part of a religious observance. And a minor using alcohol as part of employment or education — such as cooking with wine as part of a culinary program — would also be legal.

Opposition also comes from those who believe it will encourage police to enter on private property for no reason. But Kearns said, “The law and the Constitution still apply.” Police would need what he calls “reasonable and articulable suspicion that a violation has occurred.”

A municipal ordinance would have consequences for those who violate it. Under the Kearns draft, a first-time violator could be fined $250, and $350 for subsequent violations. A court could also suspend or postpone a violator’s driving privileges for six months. More than half of the state’s municipalities have adopted similar rules.

Gabel said getting parents to understand even existing laws is part of her goal, too. “Many parents allow (kids) drinking on their property,” she said. “They think it’s keeping kids from drinking and driving.” And while it’s legal for a parent to serve their child, “it is not in their right to serve others.” Under state rules, anyone can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and fined up to $1,000 for serving alcohol to someone under 21.

Gabel has an ally in Robert Manney, Clinton Township’s police director. Manney said he learned about such laws from another town at a League of Municipalities conference along with John Kuczynski, a former township police lieutenant who is now Kearns’ chief of detectives. The township’s ordinance allows violators to “avoid a criminal record, but they still pay a penalty. They understand (underage drinking) is against the law.”
He said the ordinance can be an effective ‘teaching tool” and is invoked only a few times a year. “We try to be community oriented,” Manney said, and with high school graduations approaching, he’ll remind his patrolmen about the ordinance’s usefulness.

West Amwell enacted its underage drinking ordinance after its top cop, Lt. Steve Bartzak, requested it. Bartzak got the idea when he sought to avoid another instance such as when teen who died from alcohol poisoning at a low-key party held at a township home in 2007.
he Readington Township Committee members on Monday, June 6 discussed the possibility of adopting an ordinance based on what the prosecutor has proposed. The committee plans to research the similar ordinances adopted by other municipalities, and will discuss the matter further at its next meeting on Monday, June 20