PLUMSTED – Police Chief Earl Meroney said his department is not enforcing the town’s No Knock ordinance after his officers were challenged by a seated committeeman and his church.
The ordinance blocks sales people canvassing door-to-door but allows political and religious groups to visit residences.
However, on April 23, police officers stopped canvassers who were going through a neighborhood on behalf of the Bible Baptist Church. While the church members had a permit, they were in violation of the window of time that permitted solicitation. Committeeman Dominick Cuozzo, who is a pastor there, confronted officers about being stopped.
Meroney has said that the law was unconstitutional, but since it was on the books his officers did the right thing in enforcing it. He urged the Township Committee to update the law since it’s been four months.
“This has been an ongoing issue that we have been having multiple debates about,” Meroney said. “This committee puts into place all township ordinances that my department is responsible for upholding in enforcement.”
“Due to this lack of change in the current ordinance, I have advised my officers not to enforce this ordinance as it reads. I apologize but the two officers were put in a bad spot – as everyone knows – for something that could have been handled differently and which spiraled out of control,” the chief added.
He criticized Cuozzo for interfering and escalating it to becoming a lengthier response call. Meroney also stated that it would have been better for Cuozzo to have brought up the need to revise the ordinance the next day in a meeting with him and to have gone to the rest of the committee to draft a revised ordinance.
A New Ordinance?
Township Attorney Jean Cipriani noted that a revised version of the ordinance had not passed during July’s meeting and that she had not received any guidance about the preparation of a new one.
She noted that Committeeman Cuozzo had brought up some concerns in the definition section of the ordinance.
“We do have definitions in our existing ordinance that we are carrying over but I was not sure if the direction of the committee was to prepare a new ordinance with those definitions or the changes that had been suggested. I think it is very important we address this issue as not doing so leaves the township in a vulnerable position,” she added.
“I mentioned at the last meeting that we do a whole new ordinance,” Committeeman Leonard Grilletto said. “We should do it from top to bottom so there is no misunderstanding as to what the definitions are or we ask the resident about a no-knock sign and that be it. I could go either way.”
Cipriani said she’d draft a full ordinance that would include the existing definitions “and I will show on a red line the suggested changes.”
Committeeman Michael Hammerstone asked if there was language setting certain times that canvassing is allowed.
Cipriani said: “I could prepare it with a time limitation but I cannot tell you that you are not exposing yourself to the possibility of a challenge. That is a decision for the committee to make. I am sure there are many, many towns that have those restrictions. The question is with the towns that have those restrictions, have they been successful when challenged?”
“We have sufficient reason to believe that an ordinance of this kind may be challenged in this place,” Cipriani added. “There is a time limitation for most solicitation but the constitutional exemption is for political and religious groups. You can always ask but not require. Speech is very, very protected. It is only the exempted groups we need to carve out.”
On police body camera footage, Cuozzo was called to the scene where he then ordered police not to cite his people for violating the ordinance. He said that he was the police officers’ boss.
Having seen the body camera footage, Mayor Robert Bowen put forward a resolution to censure Cuozzo, feeling his statements were in conflict with public ethics laws regarding public officials. As not all officials had reviewed the body camera footage nor investigate the matter, the censure vote was postponed during the Committee’s May meeting.
At June’s meeting, Bowen and Deputy Mayor Herb Marinari voted in favor of the censure while Hammerstone and Grilletto voted against it. The Committee is made up of all Republicans.
Cuozzo, who was able to vote on the issue himself, broke the tie against his censure. He called the measure “politically motivated” and said he was fighting for people’s constitutional rights.
No Body Cam Leak
The chief spoke about an internal investigation that was conducted as it had been brought to his attention that “some of the committee felt that my department leaked some of the body cam footage from that incident early and it was put on social media prior to being reviewed by myself and our attorney.”
“When I got that information – to be blunt and excuse my language – but it pissed me off. The fact that you think my department and myself would release body cam footage prior to being reviewed makes me very angry,” he added.
He noted that a committeeman had requested state police service on a call within the township. “That makes me mad, too, because what kind of support does that show my guys and gals when a committeeman calls 911 and requests an outside agency to come and cover a call and that happened before the body cam leakage (accusation) supposedly came out.”
Chief Meroney said it was reviewed by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and the police department’s internal affairs division and it was determined that it was not released early and that “it was released after it was reviewed by myself and the town attorney. I just wanted to put that on the record.”
Residents Want To Be Left Alone
Resident Bernard Bahnam suggested rather than having to put a sign or sticker on a residence there should be an opt in system developed for those who want to allow people to come to their doors.
“I don’t want anybody on my property period. Some of these driveways are 300 feet long. When we say we don’t want anybody on our property, I don’t want them 20 feet on my property. It is just nonsense. A lot of us just want to be left alone.”