ACLU-NJ Approves Signing of Youth Alcohol Possession Legislation Following Conditional Veto to Reduce Fines and Remove Criminal Penalties

By Shriya Kali Chittapuram

NEWARK, NJ – ACLU-NJ has made public its position on signing Bill S3954/A5610, which revises penalties of youth alcohol possession, hallmarking a crucial moment for social and racial justice for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) in New Jersey. 

Bill S3954 was introduced to the New Jersey Senate on June 12, 2023 to which it originally stated that “the bill would establish a $100 fine for the underage possession or consumption of any alcoholic beverage in a school, public conveyance, public place, or place of public assembly or motor vehicle.”

Bill S34954 will “provide that a law enforcement officer, in order to be guilty of the crime of official deprivation of civil rights regarding improper actions involving underage persons and possession or consumption violations, would have to be found to have acted with the purpose to intimidate or discriminate against the underage person or group of persons because of race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation or ethnicity, making proof of the officer’s guilt consistent with the intimidation or discrimination requirement for proving other acts of criminal deprivation.”

In response to the original procedure of the bill on December 21, 2023, Campaign Strategist Ami Kachalia of the ACLU in New Jersey acknowledged, “We are deeply disappointed that the New Jersey Senate has approved S3954/A5610, legislation that will reinstate fines and criminal consequences for youth alcohol possession and put youth—particularly low-income, Black, and Latinx youth—at increased risk of criminalization, financial precarity, and harm. 

“That this bill was passed absent data and the convening of the taskforce required under the 2021 youth alcohol and cannabis law is particularly alarming. Instead of passing punitive and ineffective policies, New Jersey should be increasing its investment in public health solutions. We urge Governor Murphy to veto this bill and commit to protecting youth across New Jersey.”

Over a series of committee amendments and advocacy from the New Jersey chapter of ACLU, a revision of Bill S34954 was introduced and signed in early January 2024.

The changes included that the fine for youth  alcohol possession would be reduced from $100 to $50 and regarding involvement of law enforcement in the bill now reads, “There is no requirement to establish criminal liability on the basis that the officer’s unlawful act was done with the purpose to intimidate or discriminate against an underage person or group of persons because of race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation or ethnicity, which motivation must be proven for other criminal deprivations of civil rights under section 2 of P.L.2003, c.31 (C.2C:30-6).”

With the signing of the revised bill on the penalties of youth alcohol possession, the ACLU NJ said, “We are grateful that Gov. Murphy and the Legislature heeded the call of youth justice advocates across the state and stopped the reinstatement of fines and criminal penalties for youth alcohol possession, which would have disproportionately harmed low-income, Black, and Latinx youth. 

“Our concerns about S3954/A5610 eroding protections against police misconduct toward youth remain. Instead of pursuing punitive approaches to substance use, we encourage lawmakers to invest in evidence-based public health responses that better protect the health and safety of youth and their families.”

Bill S3954 is among the many bills in NJ legislation that were revised in order to further advocate for racial and social justice, said the ACLU NJ.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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