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Police chiefs union urges lawmakers to remove criminal liability for illegal searches

By Nikita Biryukov, March 25 2021 11:05 am

The New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police raised alarms against a marijuana cleanup bill due for full votes before both chambers Thursday, charging it should also remove criminal liability for police officers who illegally search underage users created by an earlier cleanup bill.

“Officers are subject to criminal prosecution if they ask a minor or young adult to consent to a search or conduct a search, despite the existence of obviously suspicious activity, such as the odor of alcohol or marijuana, or when it is being hidden as the officer approaches,” the union said in a statement. “Even conducted in good faith and using common sense, an honest mistake in ascertaining someone’s age, intentions or impairment level subjects officers to potential criminal prosecution.”

The bill before the Assembly and Senate Thursday would alter the system of graduated warnings for underage marijuana users implemented last month by shifting parental notifications from the second written warning to the first.

It would also bar police from taking such users — meaning those under the age of 21 — into custody at a police station but allows officers to detain offenders at the scene if such detainment is necessary to gather information for a written warning.

Portions of the previous cleanup bill removed a requirement that an officer’s illegal search be made on the basis of an individual’s protected class — their race, for example.

That isn’t likely to change. The provisions criminalizing illegal police searches were added to the bill after lengthy negotiations between statehouse leaders and the Legislative Black and Latino Caucuses, who feared their absence would perpetuate disparate enforcement of marijuana laws along racial lines.

Republicans and police unions have derided the provision since it was made public, charging variously that it would allow the proliferation of underage drug use or stop officers from doing their jobs.

“The current legislation creates an unacceptable risk that endangers the same vulnerable children that the legislation purports to protect, and it also prevents police officers from performing their jobs and enforcing the law,” the union said. “We call on our fellow neighbors and parents to continue challenging the Governor and State Legislators to make the necessary changes to this flawed and dangerous legislation.”

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