To the Editor:
The proposal before the Princeton Council to prohibit underage consumption of alcohol on private property is a well-meaning initiative that nevertheless raises substantial concerns and therefore should not be lightly considered by the Council.
First, the move to expand the criminalization of alcohol use on private property would necessarily divert scarce municipal resources and attention where they might be better placed: with education as to the dangers of inappropriate or excessive alcohol use.
Second, an ordinance against underage alcohol use on private property provides an inappropriate “foot in the door” invitation to police to enter private property with “probable cause” to search for the source of alcohol use observed in front and backyards. This expansion of police power encourages official snooping that impinges on constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure which, in this post 9-11 age, is all too prevalent.
Third, such official snooping would most likely occur in the denser areas of town where the proscribed behavior would be more easily observed. If adopted, the ordinance will necessarily lead to the perception, generally accurate, that police enforcement will be targeted more at the John-Witherspoon neighborhood than at the Western Section or Riverside neighborhood, and their respective populations. That’s not a good message to send to our diverse community.
Fourth, if alcohol consumption on private property amounts to a real “drinking problem” in a certain area of town such as, say, educational campuses, an ordinance prohibition might be warranted to govern conduct there. But a blanket prohibition on underage alcohol use on private property throughout the community seems an over-broad and insensitive tool by which to unnecessarily enforce cultural values across a much broader population.
Lastly, with scarce tax dollars required to support important police activities, are we prepared to increase taxes to pay for enforcement of such an ordinance, particularly where the real consequences of inappropriate alcohol consumption can be policed by other means, such as summonses for disorderly conduct or noise ordinance violation?
In sum, the proposal before the Council sounds like an easy, paternalist way to govern, but it has many downsides that the Council should explore before adopting it.