NEW JERSEY – Legislation introduced Friday by Senator Declan O’Scanlon and Senator Anthony M. Bucco would protect officers from unfair criminal prosecutions when they encounter underage individuals in possession of marijuana or alcohol.
“We want to ensure bad cops are held accountable while permitting good cops to do their jobs,” O’Scanlon (R-13) said. “This bill strikes that balance and cleans up some of the mess created by the haphazard process used to legalize cannabis in New Jersey. The people of New Jersey overwhelmingly voted last year to legalize adult use of cannabis, and Trenton Democrats inexcusably used it as an opportunity to brand all police officers as criminals and make them fearful of doing their job. Under our measure, law enforcement will not unfairly bear the brunt of an unreasonable law that has nothing to do with decriminalizing pot.”
Included in the new cannabis laws, signed by the Governor less than a month ago, is a provision that a law enforcement officer is guilty of the third degree crime of Official Deprivation of Rights if, during the course of an investigation of suspected underage possession of alcohol or marijuana, the officer knowingly, but not necessarily intentionally, violates any of the new procedural requirements mandated by the recent laws. For example, an officer accused of detaining a person longer than necessary to investigate a complaint, which is a subjective determination in many cases, may be sentenced to between three and five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
“The new law is an absurd over-reaction,” Bucco (R-25) said. “Of course, we want officers to follow proper protocol at all times, but there has to be some proportionality between the violation and the punishment. In a split second, an unintentional mistake could land an otherwise exemplary officer in prison for years, even if no actual harm came to anyone during the interaction. This extreme penalty is unnecessary, just like another provision crammed into the new law that prohibits law enforcement from notifying a minor’s parents the first time they are found with liquor or marijuana.”
Ordinarily, to convict an officer of the crime of Official Deprivation of Civil Rights, the officer’s unlawful conduct must have been carried out with the purpose to intimidate or discriminate against a person or group of persons because of race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
Now, with the recent enactments, a much lower threshold applies when the officer is interacting with a person believed to be violating the underage possession law, making it much easier to charge officers even if their behavior was not intentional or discriminatory. Under O’Scanlon and Bucco’s bill (S-3577), that higher, more appropriate threshold is restored for a finding of guilt.
“The intent is key,” O’Scanlon said. “How can we expect to maintain the safety and order of our neighborhoods and cities if police officers are tarred and feathered for an innocuous action in the performance of their duties. Any improvement to the parental notification law is hollow if Trenton doesn’t address this underlying atrocity,” O’Scanlon noted. “Even if we amended the law to allow appropriate parental notification, the third degree criminal charge hanging over officers’ heads is enough to discourage anyone from investigating underage possession complaints altogether.”
Earlier this month, Bucco and O’Scanlon introduced legislation (S-3528) to remedy the provision of the recently-enacted law that prohibits the police from notifying parents when children are caught using or possessing alcohol or marijuana for the first time.
“It is clear the leadership in Trenton needs to back up and straighten these problems out,” Bucco said. “When our residents voted ‘yes’ to legalize marijuana, they did not vote to criminalize the police. They did not vote to usurp parental rights and responsibilities. Our bills would establish a balance that works for everyone.”