Under preassure, council withdrawls support for anti-drinking law

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:57

STANHOPE - Quoting from the Constitution several residents expressed their dissent against the proposed ordinance that would have given police wider powers, including easier access to private homes, to fight underage drinking. The borough council introduced last month the proposed legislation that would permit police officers responding to a complaint to enter a private home and issue summonses if they observe evidence of underaged drinking. According to borough officials, the new law was necessary to fight what they said was a growing problem. Several residents attended the Sept. 27 council meeting, when the governing body was scheduled to vote on the proposed legislation. Kevin Morgan expressed concern that the proposed law is open to interpretation by individual police officers. “We have to depend on the good will of a policeman to stay out of my house,” said Morgan. “You want to protect our sons and daughters from alcohol, but you are taking away one of our basic rights to be left alone within our homes.” Borough Attorney Richard Stein explained that the law would require the officer finds evidence prior to entering a home. According to Councilman Brian Murphy, the reason for the proposed ordinance was primarily to prevent high school students from having alcohol parties in their homes. “The intent of this ordinance is to prevent underage drinking parties. It is illegal in the state to possess or drink alcohol under 21. Under 21, if you are on private or public property, you are not allowed to have alcohol in this state. Period,” said Stein. George Graham, who said he has three children over 21 who have been “raised in this town” questioned the rationale of the ordinance. “How many of these “keggers” have happened in this town? Is this a problem?” In response, Stein acknowledged that the police department has not reported underage drinking as a major issue in Stanhope. “My deep concern is there have been police officers with problems with some specific person and have been on a harassment campaign. This opens the door,” said Graham. “Please don’t take away our civil rights just because somebody in uniform says we have a problem.” Many residents question the constitutionality of the proposed legislation and its need. Michael Assenza said, “If the purpose is to determine drinking, give them a breathalyzer but don’t do it on my property. There are enough laws on the books regarding alcohol drinking.” Councilman James Benson explained that that he supported the ordinance because he saw a problem “when my underage kid is at your house.” “A parent needs some protection to help them raise a child. I think there are parents who would like their children protected, and I’m still standing by it.” The public comments made some council members reassess their opinions regarding the proposed law. “I supported it from a public health perspective, and I don’t think it infringes on our constitutional rights,” said Councilman Brian Murphy, who later withdrew his support. Mayor Diana Kuncken praised the residents’ involvement. “I cast the deciding vote (on firsrt reading), and the reason I voted yes was to carry it to a second reading where it would be open to the public to give them an opportunity to speak. I’m happy to see that you did come out to speak.” The proposed ordinance was defeated 5-1 with Councilman James Benson casting the dissenting vote.