A New Jersey town is looking to give its police officers yet another way to bypass warrant requirements for searches of homes: underage drinking. Members of the public aren’t happy with it, and the city council doesn’t want to talk about it, even though the latter have stated they’re “on board” with it.
Not surprisingly, the proposal has provoked considerable controversy, to the point that neither the mayor, the police chief, nor members of the Montville Township Committee, the community’s governing body, would talk to a local reporter about it. Presumably supporters of the ordinance are relying on the “exigent circumstances” exception to the usual Fourth Amendment requirement of a warrant to search someone’s home without consent. According to a gloss by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, “exigent circumstances are present when a reasonable person [would] believe that entry…was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of the suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts.”
You won’t find the questionable language in the posted version of the ordinance [pdf]. You can only hear it being discussed in a recording of the city council meeting [mp3 — relevant part embedded below]. While the proposal does attempt to lessen the impact underage drinking charges will have on a teen’s future by providing for lighter punishments and more prosecutorial discretion, it undoes that limited good by giving police an easily-abused warrant exception.
While the council seems short on specifics, it runs long on support. The council notes that both the police chief and the prosecutor are on board with the proposal, which should come as no surprise to anyone.
The concerns raised are legitimate. What are the limits on a warrantless search predicated on presumed underage drinking? The council doesn’t have an answer ready but notes that both the chief and the prosecutor have offered to discuss it at a future council meeting.
Every concern is brushed off by vagaries. They state that there are “no legal concerns” and that other localities (although none are named) have passed similar statutes without receiving any notable legal “challenges.” The closest they come to an acknowledgement of the unintended consequence of broadening law enforcement’s warrantless powers is one councilperson saying, “I can see how this might look like another opportunity to kick down doors, but it really isn’t.” OK, then. If you say so.
All council members except one note their support for the ordinance. The single dissenting voice notes that the law is prone to abuse and offers nothing in the way of deterrence. (“Heroin laws don’t prevent the use of heroin…”)
In support, the town says the police can be trusted with the proposed “flexibility.” The police chief and prosecutor are willing to talk the public into it, if they’re up for being talked down to by those who will see their power increased. The committee (for the most part) seem to be convinced granting more warrantless access has only a very limited downside, but will be a solid deterrent. For those on the receiving end of this — the public — it seems like more abuse waiting to happen.