Hunterdon Democrat - Close the loophole on teen drinking


Close the loophole on teen drinking

Published: Wednesday, June 15, 2011, 4:50 PM
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West Amwell and Clinton townships have ordinances giving police the right, in the presence of “reasonable and articulable suspicion,” to charge minors on private property with underage drinking. County Prosecutor Anthony Kearns wants Hunterdon’s other 24 municipalities to adopt similar ordinances, just as more than half of New Jersey’s towns already have.

Such ordinances allow exemptions, such as when minors consume alcohol as part of a religious observance, or use it as part of an educational program, such as in culinary class.

Kearns’ idea makes a lot of sense. State law forbids serving alcohol to minors, and forbids them from consuming it on public property. The law doesn’t extend to private property.

That puts police in a tough spot when they receive a complaint. They may be powerless to act unless they find other violations — such as disorderly conduct — and that could lead to a criminal charge that might haunt a child for years.

Being able to charge minors under a municipal ordinance gives a police a tool that invokes appropriate consequences. And it can include penalties more likely to curb illegal drinking, such as a six-month suspension or delay in obtaining that all-important driver’s license.

Some who object to Kearns’ initiative argue that it’s better to allow minors to drink under adult “supervision” on private property, rather than have them sneak off with it elsewhere, which in Hunterdon almost always involves car travel. These adults overlook the fact that that serving alcohol to a minor who is not your child is already a criminal offense with potentially serious consequences.

Others argue that they don’t want police traipsing across their private property just to find that the nosy neighbor’s suspicions were ill-founded and the kids aren’t drinking anything harder than root beer.

As we sip a beer after mowing the lawn under the hot summer sun, or enjoy a glass or two of wine with dinner, it’s easy to dismiss the bitter truth that alcohol is a deadly poison — hence the term “alcohol poisoning.” Those who fail to acknowledge that can put themselves and others at great risk.

Kearns’ ordinance helps protect not only children, but everyone. He has already ascertained that the local ordinance will pass legal muster. That means officials can approve the rule without the customary legal review and the cost that goes with it.

The greatest cost of this ordinance may spring from those towns that do not enact it.