After Kinnelon's presented to the Kinnelon Council Thursday a watered-down version of the ordinance they originally considered that would allow police to charge underage individuals found drinking on private property, Chief John Finkle shared his passion for the cause.
"I'm looking at the kids that are on the fence that this gives them the crutch that says 'No, I don't want to drink,'" Finkle said.
According to Finkle, the police department has information that underage residents are partying every weekend and not only experimenting with alcohol, but cocaine and heroin as well. Additionally, Finkle said a number of sex crimes have been reported as a result of the parties.
The Underage Drinking Ordinance Advisory Committee was formed in January after the council that would give police the authority to impose penalties for underage drinking on private property. Currently in Kinnelon, underage individuals can only be charged if they are found in possession of alcohol on public property.
The ordinance the council was considering would have included fines as penalties and after subsequent arrests and at the judge's discretion, also could have included the suspension of an individual's driver's license.
Many Kinnelon residents and some council members were uncomfortable with the possible suspension of a driver's license as a penalty and some residents were also concerned about allowing police to charge the underage drinkers on private property. The committee was formed to more closely review the ordinance and then make a recommendation to the council on how to proceed.
On Thursday, the committee recommended several revisions to the ordinance, including making underage drinking a secondary offense, meaning police would need another reason, such as violation of a noise ordinance, to enter a person's property to investigate underage drinking and ultimately charge the individual for it.
Another major revision recommended was to eliminate the fine on the first offense but to instead include an educational component as the penalty. The committee felt that a person who is found to be in constructive possession of alcohol but not necessarily drinking would not be punished as harshly under the revision.
Ultimately, the commitee was split on whether Kinnelon should enact an ordinance at all, Chairman Pat Caserta said. Of the seven-member committee, four members were in favor of a revised ordinance, two were opposed to the revised ordinance and one could not decide either way.
Councilman Gary Moleta asked Caserta if committee member Mark Gaw, who was not present at the meeting but was recently , voted in favor of the ordinance, which Caserta said he did.
Later in the meeting, Mayor Bob Collins asked the committee members if the allegations against Gaw in any way influenced their decisions on how they felt about the ordinane and speaking for herself, committee member Jeanine Mazzola said it did not.
One of Finkle's concerns with the revised ordinance and public perception on the ordinance is that some residents feel that police will go onto private property and charge underage individuals for even having "a beer" at their home.
"What I keep hearing is 'If somebody has a beer.' I cannot tell you the last time we arrested somebody for having 'a beer.' The kids in this town are binge drinking," Finkle said.
He referenced several incidents in the past year where alleged underage drinkers left a party and got behind the wheel of a car and into accidents. In Finkle's opinion, a judge should be able to decide what type of penalty should be applied to a particular individual and underage drinking should not be a secondary offense.
In addressing the concerns of some residents' opinions that the ordinance violates property rights, Finkle said that the police do not wait outside the parties for underage individuals to enter public property to charge them now and that they will not be out looking for the underage drinkers with this ordinance. He also said the residents need to have faith that the police, themselves, are abiding by the law.
"You're going to have to trust me to trust the officers that the laws are going to be upheld," he said.
To prove that the police department is not out to abuse power, Finkle provided copies of an ordinance the borough has on the books that allows police to penalize residents for owning barking dogs. A person who is charged against the dog-barking ordinance can be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail.
Councilman Ron Mondello said he has no problem with the council amending the ordinance to leave the penalties at the judge's discretion, as per Finkle's request. But overall, Mondello said referring the ordinance to the committee was a good choice.
"This is exactly what I was looking for, you hit it right on the head," he said. "You have used a lot of creative thinking and, in my mind, this is exactly what I would like to see."
Mondello did say he would also like to see the contemplation of dismissal added to the first offense, though. Councilman Gary Moleta said he felt the ordinance needs to keep the possible suspension of a driver's license because he feels it is the only thing that "gives it teeth." Still, Moleta agreed that an educational component should be included in the ordinance.
Collins told the committee that their recommendation is non-binding and that the council can decide to follow or not follow the recommendations. The soonest the council will be voting on the ordinance will be next month, he said.