Nearly all Jersey Shore visitors and residents enjoy the summer and wouldn’t think of doing anything that might prevent others from doing the same. That made it easy for municipalities and their law enforcers to prevent the chaos and harm that might thoughtlessly or intentionally be caused by a small number of others.
Then two things happened. The Legislature and the Murphy administration restricted enforcement of alcohol and marijuana laws for underage users. And social media enabled crowds to quickly and unlawfully pop up in beachfront municipalities.
A 5,000 strong pop-up party in Long Branch last summer led to numerous fights and the vandalizing of a police car. Point Pleasant Beach suffered several such flash mobs. Promoters advertised the pop-up parties online, encouraging kids to bring liquor and marijuana. Those municipalities got court orders prohibiting public parties unless permitted, but the organizers were anonymous.
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Shore towns asked state government to restore the ability of police to engage those under 18 illegally consuming marijuana and alcohol.
Then at the end of last summer, a pop-up party drew hundreds of cars and thousands of revelers to Wildwood on an already busy weekend. In the chaos of reckless and often illegal car antics that spilled into neighboring towns, two were killed and many injured in multiple crashes. Gov. Phil Murphy said it was an “awful tragedy” and officials would examine what happened.
Last fall, Atlantic County’s Republican state legislators -- Sen. Vince Polistina, Assemblywoman Claire Swift and Assemblyman Don Guardian -- introduced a bill to give police clear rules on how they can interact with minors in possession of alcohol or cannabis. Police could temporarily detain juveniles who unlawfully purchase or possess alcoholic beverages or cannabis, give them a written warning and notify their parents or guardians. Police would be required to seize from those under age 21 any alcohol or marijuana in their possession. They would not be subject to arrest, and no criminal record would result.
Then Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, introduced a bill to let municipalities designate an event zone and strictly enforce local ordinances and state rules on vehicle operation and safety. McClellan said the proposal grew out of talks with officials in Ocean City, Maryland, whose similar approach convinced a problem car rally to relocate to Wildwood.
Municipalities won’t have help from either bill when Memorial Day arrives on Monday, the result of inaction by Democrats controlling the Legislature.
Finally, in April, state Attorney General Matthew Platkin told lawmakers that the State Police were helping local officials monitor social media activity from the state intelligence center in West Trenton “to identify pop-up parties that may be emerging.”
Two weeks later, Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland said unsanctioned pop-up parties were being planned for a Wildwoods beach in May. After letters from municipalities and warnings of strict enforcement, planned events in Wildwood and Seaside Heights were canceled.
Municipalities have done what they can under existing law to strengthen their ability to respond to the new threats to the public order. Ocean City upgraded multiple local nuisance violations to breaches of the peace, giving officials the option to take an offender into custody. Other towns have revived or enacted curfews on all those under age 18 as a means to restrict the tiny share of teens that causes problems.
Ocean City has been a leader in managing peaceful gatherings of teens on its Boardwalk and beaches, preventing problems while letting kids socialize in person. We like the approach of doing only what’s needed. As we’ve said before, nonemergency curfews don’t work and aren’t enforceable under the U.S. Constitution.
State government seems to be taking a similar limited interference approach. That might be best if it turns out to be enough to avoid the serious problems of last summer. Of course, when pop-up parties afflicted the government’s own Wildlife Management Areas, it closed them to everyone -- an easy, heavy-handed response.
We hope the Jersey Shore summer season is a delightful, unmarred success. We hope that in the fall, few will be wishing the state had done more.
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