Lawsuit: N.J. public drunkenness laws too tough

June 16, 2008 10:30:57 AM PDT
At least 74 of New Jersey's 566 municipalities are illegally enforcing ordinances that make public intoxication a crime even though such local laws were repealed by the state Legislature in 1975, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Joseph W. McMullen, a Moorestown man arrested last year in Maple Shade, seeks monetary compensation for those who had to pay legal fees and had other costs after being wrongly prosecuted for public intoxication.

The lawsuit also asks a judge to order municipalities to stop prosecuting such cases and return all fines and court costs from past enforcement.

"We want to get it off the books because it doesn't belong," McMullen lawyer Steven E. Angstreich said Monday.

"The local public intoxication laws at issue here are not valid and legal laws and they violate the constitutional and statutory rights of Mr. McMullen and other individuals when they are enforced," Angstreich said.

He noted that McMullen was not driving, but walking home from a bar when arrested by police. McMullen had to spend $500 in attorney fees and go to trial before his lawyer persuaded Municipal Court Judge Gregory R. McCloskey to dismiss the charge, Angstreich said.

The suit seeks class-action status and named Maple Shade, in Burlington County, as the initial defendant. It was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Camden.

The township's attorney, Eileen Fahey, said Monday she could not discuss the lawsuit because she had not yet seen it.

She said public intoxication carries a penalty of up to a $1,250 fine, 90 days in the county jail, community service, or any combination of those sanctions.

At trial and in his lawsuit, McMullen argued that the state's Alcoholism Treatment and Rehabilitation Act meant that police are to get help, not handcuffs, for someone who is drunk.

"In 1975, New Jersey said they wanted to deal with alcoholism as a disease and wanted to decriminalize it," Angstreich said.

He said the law prohibited local public intoxication ordinances, but that at least 74 towns, including Maple Shade, continue to enforce such laws.