Search and Seizure

Proposed Ordinance Would Give Cops an Invitation to All the Cool Parties

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Warner Brothers

Suppose you are  a police officer responding to complaints about a noisy party, and you suspect some of the guests are younger than 21. In addition to asking the host to turn down the music when he answers the door, you'd like to come in and make sure that no minors are drinking. But the host won't let you in, and you don't have a warrant. Ordinarily, that would be the end of the matter. An ordinance under consideration in Montville, New Jersey, would offer you a third option: Walk in and search the place anyway, as long as you think you have probable cause to believe teenagers are drinking inside.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has provoked considerable controversy, to the point that neither the mayor, the police chief, nor members of the Montville Township Committee, the community's governing body, would talk to a local reporter about it. Presumably supporters of the ordinance are relying on the "exigent circumstances" exception to the usual Fourth Amendment requirement of a warrant to search someone's home without consent. According to a gloss by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, "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."

If Bud Light disappearing down the gullet of an 18-year-old counts as "destruction of relevant evidence," Montville's town fathers may be on to something. Otherwise, it seems like a stretch. And depending on how the average Montville cop interprets probable cause in this context, the new rule may in practice be an invitation to every party attended by teenagers (or 20-year-olds).

It's encouraging that the local CBS station apparently was unable to find anyone willing to speak on the record in favor of warrantless home searches to catch adolescent imbibers. "That's more of a parent responsibility rather than a police responsibility," one parent said. A token teenager added, "It's not really their business to be going into people's houses. If you want to do that, you need to get a warrant." For now, at least.