U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman has outlined areas that remain disputed in a civil rights lawsuit filed against Haddonfield and one of its commissioners by the parents of three teens arrested for underage drinking in town in 2008 and 2009.
In a 27-page opinion filed on March 31, Hillman dismissed one of three counts in the lawsuit, finding that borough police had not violated the teens’ right to protection from an unreasonable arrest.
The two other counts await disposition at either extensive pretrial motions or at trial. No date was set for the next step in the litigation, which challenges the right of elected officials in town to overstep statewide procedural boundaries set by the state attorney general in the borough’s efforts to curtail, underage drinking.
The issue, which has become known as Haddonfield’s 24/7 policy, involves a potential standoff between the attorney general, who stands as the state’s chief law enforcement agent, and Commissioner Ed Borden.
Attorneys representing the teens have said Borden was overzealous in his method of curbing alcohol parties among high school students, often held in homes temporarily vacated by owners and, almost equally often, ending in extreme vandalism.
To combat what had become seasonal rounds of teen parties, Borden directed the police department specifically to deny teens arrested for underage drinking the courtesy of a “curbside” or “station house meeting.”
Those informal meetings, which included the juvenile offender, his parents or guardians, and individuals damaged by the teens’ conduct, often would end with promises of restitution and no future violations. The meetings, first mandated by the NJ attorney general in 1990 and reiterated a decade later, were aimed at protecting teens charged with nonserious offenses from any formal contact with the juvenile justice system.
Borden directed police to disregard that policy when they responded to reports of underage drinking and to arrest juvenile offenders and file formal reports, which exposed the youths to disciplinary options in the high school. Those options generally included a bar on all extracurricular activities, which in turn affect, for example, athletes’ right to compete and impact on college scholarships and placement.
The civil rights lawsuit, filed by Hercules Pappas and Matthew S. Wolf, also claims that Borden, as director of public safety, handled confidential juvenile records, sharing them with police and school district officials.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, plus fines and costs, and a declaratory ruling that Haddonfield’s policy violates the rights of the teens.
The police department previously was dismissed as a defendant. The remaining defendants are the borough and Borden, in his position as public safety director.
Attorneys for the borough, John Charles Gillespie and Mario Iavicoli, have argued that the attorney general’s directives are ambiguous. The borough’s assertion of stronger policies regarding actions of teens is a reasonable step in its attempts to discourage underage drinking, the defense attorneys say.
Plaintiffs counter that it is unjustified to single out specific violations and that the borough has denied its teens rights that are held by youths in other municipalities.
Commenting that it was not the court’s role “to cast an inappropriate judicial gloss over an executive policy,” Hillman said additional discovery was needed in the case. It is not up to the trial judge, Hillman said, to “interpret, construe or apply the attorney general’s directive.”