WILDWOOD - Memorial Day weekend could look a whole lot different this year, as Jersey Shore police departments are left with little authority over underage drinking, as much a tradition of the three-day weekend as the smell of barbeques and the sound of power washers.
The new marijuana legalization law Gov. Phil Murphy said was inspired by “social justice, racial justice, and economic justice” implemented a new, three-step warning system for those charged with underage drinking offenses, no longer giving police authority to make an arrest, issue a citation or fine a defendant in an underage drinking case.
In separate interviews with the Herald, the police chiefs from Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest condemned the law, criticizing the restrictions it places on officers.
Why Include Underage Drinking?
“That’s what threw everybody for a loop,” said North Wildwood Police Chief Matthew Gallagher. “You can’t get arrested for underage drinking, whether it’s on public or private property.”
The new law requires police to issue only a warning for drinking underage on a first offense. On a second offense, they are to issue a warning and provide information on drug and alcohol treatment. On a third offense, police are to refer the subject to drug and alcohol treatment.
“They could never get it done legitimately, so they tucked it into a marijuana bill, which had nothing to do with the issue,” North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said, in an interview. “It is unconscionable… as a parent, as a business owner, as a mayor: When the public begins to realize what Trenton has done, there is going to be a backlash.”
On each offense, police may now notify parents after a “cleanup bill” changed a policy in the original legislation, which did not allow police to notify parents when encountering their child committing a marijuana or alcohol violation on a first offense.
“They could give you any information they want. They could say, ‘I’m Jon Jones, from...,' I mean, technically, you’re not supposed to lie to a police officer, but they’re getting a warning,” Gallagher said, adding municipalities will not be able to share information, so a person would have multiple first offenses if they happened in different towns, a troublesome dynamic in a tourist community.
Wildwood Police Chief Robert Regalbuto indicated the problems with the law may manifest themselves soon, when his police department normally would've taken a proactive approach to prevent problems at senior houses.
“We do have a lot of people who come to Wildwood for senior weeks, in May and June. It’s going to prove very difficult for us with the enforcement of that. Normally, we take a very aggressive approach to underage drinking. When we do that, it prevents from having the large fights, disturbances, assaults,” he said.
“If you take care of the smaller things, usually the bigger things kind of take care of themselves. Having this restriction with the alcohol is going to prove very difficult for us,” he added.
With little action available for police to take against drunk, underage tenants, in Wildwood, they may focus on the landlords.
“The onus is really going to get pushed back on the landlords. They need to keep their properties under control because if we keep getting disturbance calls, or calls from their neighbors about underage drinking, that’s going to start causing a quality-of-life issue. If we can't deal with the tenants, then we have to deal with the landlords,” Regalbuto said.
What Can Police Do?
Wildwood Crest Police Chief Robert Lloyd said he will do all he can within the law to enforce local ordinances and state statutes prohibiting underage drinking and marijuana possession.
“There's going to be challenges. It's definitely going to be a challenging summer, considering this is going to be new to us,” said Lloyd, adding the police still have noise ordinance violations, disorderly conduct offenses, and other situational ordinances or statutes at their disposal in the event of an underage drinking call.
However, questions arose about what police can do when they encounter a situation with a crowd of rowdy underage drinkers, aside from dumping the booze, writing the warning, and moving on.
“The legislation that has passed has really handcuffed the police department with what actions we can take. It's going to be a challenge coming,” Gallagher said. “It’s not going to be like the past.”
Despite different municipal ordinances and state laws pertaining to public consumption and underage drinking, the consensus seems to be that the new legislation shields those under 21 from almost all liability.
“Underage drinking is a local ordinance, which is kind of out of play now because you can’t be arrested for it, you have to get a warning for it,” Gallagher explained.
A separate state statute covers underage drinking in public, but Gallagher said the new legislation still mandates warnings for violations of that law.
Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron said, in an interview, he spoke with city Solicitor Lou Delollis, who said a discussion with city prosecutor Ronald Gelzunas Jr. led them to agree there are many unknowns with the new law.
Consider a hypothetical situation on the beach this summer, where police come across a group of kids partying and drinking near a father having a beer and quietly reading the newspaper, enjoying a day with his family:
“You’re hard-pressed to say, ‘Ok, you’re of age, but you’re violating a local ordinance, so we’re going to give you a ticket, but that kid sitting beside you, or those high school kids sitting beside you that are partying, we can't do anything about it. That just doesn't make sense,” Byron said.
“There is some lobbying going on by the local solicitors, as well as police. We need some consistency here. That would just be open season if that were the case,” he added.
“You see these signs, ‘strictly enforced.’ Well, you can’t strictly enforce anything. You have to give a warning,” Gallagher said.
What Other Changes Affect Police?
The changes regarding marijuana are also leaving police departments with whiplash.
“The pendulum has swung a full 180-degrees,” said Regalbuto.
“Under six ounces (of marijuana), you can't be charged,” Gallagher said. “If you’re under the age of 21, we can confiscate it, but you only get a warning card. That's not only for possession, that is also related to distribution.”
Lloyd said police in Wildwood Crest will still treat marijuana as if it is illegal.
“If we come across marijuana during the course of an investigation, it is contraband and it will be seized,” he said. “We don't have any regulated cannabis because there aren't any state-regulated dispensaries, so right now, any marijuana is still considered contraband. It's still not legal.”
Other parts of the bill expose officers to greater civil and criminal liability if they initiate a search or detain an individual based on the smell of marijuana or suspicion of underage drinking.
“If that's not bad enough, then they throw in that the officer can be criminally and civilly held liable?” Gallagher remarked. “They’re saying, ‘Well, this is going to be the new law. Police better get used to it.”’
What to Expect Memorial Day
All three chiefs said they are confident in staffing levels for the summer. Last summer, local departments suffered shortages of seasonal officers due to the pandemic closing the Cape May County Police Academy.
With Memorial Day weekend approaching and a lot of pent-up energy after a year in lockdown ready to explode on Five Mile Island, police say this new legislation could make the job even harder.
“I always worry about Memorial Day weekend being crazy. This is just going to be another challenge we’re going to have to deal with,” Lloyd said. “It’s going to be challenging, but I think we are up for the challenge.”
The importance of kickstarting the major economic season isn’t lost on the departments, either.
“We're used to having big Memorial Day weekends. That's not an issue for us,” Regalbuto said. “By all means, come on down.”
To contact Shay Roddy, email email@example.com.