Montville, N.J. - In the upscale New Jersey community of Montville, in Morris County, a proposed ordinance could give sweeping power to law enforcement that would allow officers the right to enter private property without a warrant if underage drinking is simply suspected.
Under the new ordinance officers would have the ability to search homes with probable cause, without any warrant required, if underage drinking is even suspected.
Residents are understandably questioning whether the privacy gutting and property rights destroying ordinance gives law enforcement too much discretion.
“I just feel that it’s not really their business to be going into people’s houses,” said high school senior Brendan Zevits in an interview with CBS 2. “If you want to do that, you need to get a warrant.”
“Just coming in our houses searching – eventually, it’s going to turn into hunches and all that, and once you base it on a hunch, then it’s all downhill from there,” said high school senior Stephen McManus.
Attorney Fred Semrau, who wrote the memorandum for the Montville Township Committee disagrees, claiming that police won't have any new power to enter a home. In an interview with NJ.com, he says that if the ordinance passes the police will have exactly the same power to enter a home as what currently exists. "All the same rules apply," he said.
Semrau states that if police have probable cause to think teens are drinking at a party without authorization from adult relatives, they can already enter a home — because the homeowner can be held criminally responsible for allowing teens access to the alcohol.
Semrau's assessment seems flawed and here is why.
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Standard operating procedure for law enforcement when coming to a residence where underage drinking is suspected would typically consist of coming to the door and asking if anyone is underage drinking in the residence and asking the homeowners permission to enter to be sure.
If refused entry, and the officer feels they have probable cause, the officer can then petition a court to grant a warrant for entry into the residence.
The language of the new ordinance gets rid of the need to procure a warrant and would simply allow officers to enter a private residence if they believe probable cause exists, without judicial oversight.
Just think of the potential for abuse such an ordinance would have. ANY residence that law enforcement wants to search, but doesn’t have enough probable cause to get a warrant from a judge, they could simply have a fellow officer make an anonymous phone call that there is underage drinking taking place and officers could then show up and enter the property without a warrant.
This is extremely dangerous ground to tread upon, and presents a very slippery slope into a tyrannical future where the rule of law is simply a relic of days gone by.
The basis for the ordinance is the “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment, which according to a gloss by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit states, "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."
Warrant requirements were placed upon law enforcement to prevent against abuse of authority and when those requirements are swept away by technicality of law and stretching terms like “exigent circumstance,” there is a serious danger to peoples rights.
Law enforcement continually pushes the limits of what they are allowed to do constitutionally, judicial review is often the only thing that keeps law enforcement from turning the U.S. into a total police state.
Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, freethinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay's work has previously been published on BenSwann.com and WeAreChange.org. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis and on Facebook at Sir Metropolis.