By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Cape May County officials are looking to a resort town in another state as a model as part of their efforts to crack down on groups of rowdy teenagers and young adults that have been disrupting the summer tourism season at the Jersey Shore.
A law in Ocean City, Maryland, gives that town the power to impound cars, impose fines and put people in jail for the most serious offenses during unsanctioned events such as “pop-up” car shows that turn destructive, officials said.
During a roundtable discussion Monday involving local, county and state officials representing Cape May County, the Maryland law was cited as a template for state legislation that will be introduced in New Jersey to deal with illegal events.
“The bill is coming,” said state Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, whose First Legislative District includes Cape May County.
An unsanctioned pop-up H2Oi car rally in Wildwood on Sept. 24 turned into chaos in the streets, resulting in the deaths of two people struck by a fleeing driver who was later arrested.
Ocean City, Maryland, once was plagued by illegal car rallies disrupting the popular beach resort. In 2017, Ocean City lawmakers responded by creating a Special Event Zone. The zone spans the entire county and gives police the power to respond to unsanctioned events by impounding cars, imposing fines and jailing the most serious offenders, officials said.
“We’re going to adapt that bill to New Jersey,” McClellan said.
McClellan and other Cape May County lawmakers conferred with officials in Ocean City, Maryland, during a two-hour Zoom conference to discuss ways to crack down on illegal or disruptive events at the Jersey Shore through new state legislation.
In addition, McClellan and his First Legislative District colleagues, Sen. Michael Testa and Assemblyman Erik Simonsen, are preparing other legislation to give police more power to deal with unruly teens and young adults. In the most serious cases, offenders could be charged with inciting a riot, officials said.
“We’re looking to swing the pendulum back to give the police more authority,” said Cape May County Commissioner Leonard Desiderio, who also serves as mayor of Sea Isle City.
In a statement released after the two-hour roundtable discussion, Cape May County officials stressed the importance of bipartisan cooperation in getting the legislation approved in the Statehouse.
“The focus of the roundtable work session is to develop effective state, county, and local legislation to prevent future incidents and support a coordinated Law Enforcement response,” the statement said.
Cape May County is dominated by Republicans. The proposed legislation will need support from the Statehouse’s Democratic majority for any hope of passage.
“It’s all about working with the Legislature in a bipartisan way to get this done. It’s not just a Democratic issue or just a Republican issue. It’s a state of New Jersey issue,” Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said.
In urging bipartisan support for the proposed legislation, Desiderio also pointed to the broader impact of preventing disruptions at the shore during the crucial summer tourism season.
“This affects 126 miles of the Jersey Shore. This isn’t just something that affects Sea Isle, Ocean City or Avalon,” he said.
As a possible compromise to help win bipartisan support, Desiderio said Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi suggested perhaps allowing towns to opt-out of the legislation if they objected to it.
For the past two years, Cape May County officials have been angered by groups of rowdy teens and young people getting out of control while hanging out on the beaches, boardwalks or other popular spots at the shore.
Elected officials and police chiefs at the Jersey Shore have complained that rowdy teens have little to fear now of being arrested, which has emboldened them to commit crimes such as theft, vandalism, underage public drinking and smoking pot.
State laws enacted last year as part of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s juvenile justice reforms put restrictions on police on how far they can go in their interactions with teens.
Instead of placing juveniles under arrest or taking them into custody, officers are required to give them “curbside warnings” for minor crimes such as underage drinking or marijuana possession. Under current laws, police are not allowed to call the parents if their children are given curbside warnings.
“We need to get back to calling the parents when the kids are unruly and to stop the curbside chats. In Sea Isle, we had thousands of curbside chats,” Desiderio said while advocating stronger police action.
New legislation introduced in October by state Sen. Vince Polistina, Assemblyman Don Guardian and Assemblywoman Claire Swift of the Second Legislative District would allow police to detain juveniles caught drinking alcohol or using marijuana in public and to notify their parents or legal guardians. The juveniles, though, would not be arrested.
Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, who was among the law enforcement officials participating in the roundtable discussion, said authorities don’t want to saddle juveniles with a criminal record for minor crimes.
“That could put a stain on them for the future,” he said.
At the same time, Sutherland said it is important for police to have the proper “tools” to respond to disruptive juveniles who commit more serious crimes.
“That’s the balancing act,” he said.
Sutherland and Cape May County Senior Assistant Prosecutor Edward Shim outlined potential strategies for law enforcement and efforts being made by the State Prosecutors Association to advance legislation to assist police. Sutherland heads the State Prosecutors Association.
Altogether, the roundtable discussion lasted for about two hours at the county administration building in Cape May Court House. Local, county and state lawmakers were also joined by law enforcement officials from Cape May County. The meeting was closed to the media, but officials spoke afterward to reporters.
The roundtable discussion was the latest effort by Cape May County officials to develop a strategy to prevent teens or young adults from engaging in outbursts of rowdy behavior.
There are plans to follow up with another roundtable discussion in January. Desiderio organized Monday’s roundtable session, along with Pagliughi, Middle Township Mayor Tim Donohue and North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello.
Desiderio emphasized the importance of moving forward with legislation and an overall game plan to prevent yet another summer of rowdy teens disturbing the shore.
“This has got to be something that has to be in place by next summer,” he said.