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Bergen Prosecutor Orders Mahwah Police Not To Enforce Parks Ban

Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal
Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal Photo Credit: Jerry DeMarco

MAHWAH, N.J. – (UPDATE) A new Mahwah ordinance that bans outsiders from using township parks violates the U.S. Constitution in several ways and must not be enforced, Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal said Thursday.

The ordinance, which seeks to limit the use of Mahwah recreational facilities to New Jersey residents, also violates a state Attorney General’s directive that strictly prohibits racially-influenced policing, the prosecutor said.

It also “may expose [township police] to increased civil liability and to internal affairs complaints,” said Grewal, a former federal prosecutor.

"As the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Bergen County, I direct you not to enforce the Ordinance," he wrote to Mahwah Police James Batelli.

Township officials said they hoped the measure -- which took effect Thursday -- would provide protection against what residents fear is an organized incursion from Rockland County of Hasidic families who've recently swarmed parks in Mahwah, Montvale, Ramsey and Upper Saddle River by the busload.

In fact, Grewal noted that Mahwah police have “received numerous calls asking for [the ordinance] to be enforced against individuals perceived by the callers to be out-of-state members of the Hasidic Jewish community using Mahwah parks.”

That, he said, directly violates a state Attorney General directive that reads, in part:

“A sworn officer or civilian employee of a police agency acting under the authority of the laws of the State of New Jersey shall not consider a person's race or ethnicity as a factor in drawing an inference or conclusion that the person may be involved in criminal activity, or as a factor in exercising police discretion as to how to stop or otherwise treat the person.”

Responding to such calls “could also give rise to violations of [New Jersey] criminal statutes enacted to prohibit such conduct by law enforcement officers,” the prosecutor said.

These would involve “deprivation of civil rights” through contact that would “intimidate or discriminate against an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, etc.”

Grewal said the ordinance also “provides no neutral criteria for MPD officers to utilize when deciding to detain an individual to [determine] his/her residency status.”

“At best, the Ordinance invites MPD offcers to stop individuals for no reason at all, and, at worst, MPD officers may be called on to stop individuals for impermissible reasons,” the prosecutor said. “As a result, its enforcement would violate the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unlawful searches and seizures.”

It also could “give rise to claims that the Ordinance interferes with First Amendment guarantees and an individual's federal constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law,” Grewal said.

The courts rejected a similar ordinance adopted by the borough of Haledon in the late 1990s, he noted.

Grewal copied his letter to Batelli to Mahwah Mayor William Laforet, members of the Mahwah Township Council and Township Attorney Brian M. Chewcaskie “so that they may consider my observations with respect to the Ordinance and the problems with its enforcement.”

A large turnout was expected at Thursday night's council meeting.

Daily Voice broke the story late Thursday morning:

MAHWAH, N.J. -- Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal on Thursday ordered Mahwah police not to enforce a new municipal ordinance that bans outsiders from using township parks, Daily Voice has learned.

Township officials said they hoped the measure would provide protection against what residents fear is an organized incursion from Rockland County of Orthodox families who've recently swarmed parks in Mahwah, Montvale, Ramsey and Upper Saddle River by the busload.

"The township ordinance, as its written, cannot be enforced without violating the Fourth Amendment of the [U.S.] Constitution," a ranking official with direct knowledge of the order told Daily Voice. "They simply can't do it."

Township officials apparently didn't consult Grewal -- the county's top law enforcement official -- or the state Attorney General before drafting the ordinance, another source said.

Concerns exist over the potential for lawsuits and federal complaints against police by those who would argue selective enforcement and bias profiling, among other flaws in the ordinance's language, the source said.

A large turnout was expected at Thursday night's council meeting. By then, residents and officials were expected to have more information.

Grewal -- who was named county prosecutor last year after six years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Jersey in Newark -- couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

He was expected to issue a formal public statement Thursday afternoon.

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Ritual Enclosure Sparks Controversy In Mahwah (Daily Voice)

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