In a change that could encourage enforcement of rules against smoking in public places, a new state law signed Monday by Gov. Chris Christie allows cities and towns to downgrade the penalties so people wouldn’t be hit with a criminal record.

The fine would stay the same, up to $200. But it would be a civil fine, rather than a criminal one, eliminating the chance the petty disorderly persons offense could also be penalized by a 30-day jail sentence.

“It sounds counterintuitive, but we hope that this legislation will actually increase the enforcement of anti-smoking rules,” said Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen.

Gordon said he heard from officials in Fair Lawn, where he lives, who had gotten complaints from residents about people smoking in the local parks. While they wanted to enforce the law, they realized doing so would mean charging people with a criminal complaint.

“They’d have a police record. It just seemed a rather onerous thing to do for a smoking violation,” Gordon said. “And so the town came back to me and said, ‘Can you give us more flexibility? Can you change the law to allow us to charge people with a civil penalty and just impose a fine and give them a ticket? And then we’ll enforce the law vigorously.”

“This just gives the towns more flexibility, and we think it will lead to more aggressive enforcement,” Gordon said.

Court statistics suggest anti-smoking rules aren’t aggressively enforced.

Judiciary spokesman Pete McAleer said 249 summonses were issued statewide for violating anti-smoking ordinances from July 1, 2016 to July 6, 2017 – a stretch of more than a year.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen said it will be easier to enforce smoke-free rules without threatening to throw people in jail up to a month.

“I think the hesitancy was there because sometimes it can become maybe – it was probably overregulated and a little bit too strict,” Vainieri Huttle said.

“This will tweak it to make sure that now there’s a clear enough disincentive to prevent people from violating the Smoke-Free (Air) Act without criminalizing smokers,” she said.

The bill was passed 70-0 with two votes to abstain by the Assembly in June and 28-2 by the Senate in July.

Christie signed the bill into law without comment on Monday, far ahead of the deadline for him to action. It takes effect immediately.

In all, Christie enacted 50 new laws before heading overseas with most of his family for a vacation scheduled to end Aug. 18.

Christie also signed bills into law spending farm preservation funds, increasing sexual assault training for police and formally making ‘Garden State’ the state slogan.

For a full list of the bills Christie signed – and one he conditionally vetoed – click here.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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