Thursday, September 25, 2014

NJ Town Proposes Law That Would Grant Law Enforcement The Right To Warrantlessly Search Houses To Find Underage Drinkers

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.