May 14, 2002
A 17-year-old boy is driving home from work. It's midnight. He gets half way across town before the cop patrolling his neighborhood pulls him over for curfew violation. A car full of teen-age girls creeps toward the stoplight located at the center of the main street of their town. As the light changes to red, the five girls all begin their search for the police cars usually found slowly cruising up and down the main drag after 10pm each night. An 18-year-old steps off the bus that takes her from the library to her house. It's just after 1am. She quickly scans the street for the cop car usually parked across the street from her bus stop, and the officer who ritually harasses her for being out past curfew, despite her being over 18.
These scenes are being played out all across America in towns that have curfew laws. Teens are being forced to explain their various activities from working, to seeing a movie after 10pm, to studying late.
It is expected for the communities we live in to have rules and guidelines. But some rules seem like they're there just to show people that they are being controlled. Especially so with rules concerning children and teenagers. Curfew laws are a recent example of this.
The most recent wave of curfew regulation began in the early nineties with the renewed effort to curb crime nation wide. By 1995 curfews were in effect all over the country, in nearly 300 cities. When President Clinton announced his support of new teen curfew policies as early as 9 p.m. on weeknights in some cities, the ACLU began to get involved on behalf of youth affected by the unjust statutes.
In just such a case last March, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that a 1993 West New York curfew was unconstitutional. The lawsuit came about after teens who were arrested for things such as taking baked goods to a grandparent, returning home from work, and walking home with friends from a movie spoke out.
David Kohane, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey, said, "It makes no sense to criminalize the innocent activities of these teenagers, and numerous other good kids like them, for problems they haven't caused."
When looked at in relation to crime in the community, the results of these curfew ordinances vary. In most cases crime actually increased when curfews were enforced. In a case study of curfew failure, the juvenile crime rate in Monrovia, California increased by 53 percent during the afternoon hours of the school year, when a daytime curfew was enforced. During the summer, when the regulation was not enforced, the juvenile crime rate actually dropped by 12 percent.
Curfew programs in San Francisco and San Jose also paint a grim picture for curfew success. The cities statistics have long contrasted sharply. San Jose ended the 1980s with little curfew enforcement but stepped it up in the mid-90s. San Francisco did just the opposite. Police officials there made over 1,500 arrests between 1987-1990, when a curfew law was enforced, but made only 2 arrests in 1995, when the curfew was no longer enforced. A case study of the results in each city shows that San Francisco did not experience an increase of teen crime after they de-enforced. San Jose, just the opposite, showed no decline in crime after increasing the enforcement of their curfew laws.
Part of the issue with curfews is that while many towns have curfew laws in place, they are not enforced. The town, like San Francisco, may have once found a use for them, but no longer enforces the policy. Curfew laws can also be enforced in different ways. Some cities have daytime curfews, which are basically there to enforce truancy from school, and specify which hours of the daytime kids can be outside their homes and their schools. Other cities have both day and nighttime curfews. Some towns only enforce their curfews during the school year. This can be confusing for many teens growing up in the shadows of these curfew laws, not knowing if they are going to be arrested for being out late, or for grabbing lunch during school hours.
In the early '90s, the Seattle area of Washington State began enforcing curfews of varied restriction. Bellingham passed a standard curfew law in 1992. The Washington ACLU interfered and took the case to the Washington Supreme Court. The court declared the curfew "too broad, too vague." Jerr Sheehn, the ACLU's legislative director stated, "We're very pleased that this court unanimously has said the same thing that the Washington Supreme Court has twice before said, that curfews cannot be sustained by the government unless there's some temporary emergency problem going on."
Other towns that have enforced curfews though have shown that the crime rate among teenagers has indeed declined. In many of these cities, however, the results were more influenced by other free youth programs simultaneously enacted. Whether or not this was designed to make the curfew programs look successful has not been explored.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the rights of minors in curfew cases, but most famously in Tinker vs. Des Moines. According to the Supreme Court decision to the case, which questioned the free speech rights of students during the Vietnam War, citizens under the age of 18 are afforded the same rights as adults. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the right of the people to peaceably assemble." In addition to the First Amendment, curfews violate the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Harvard Law Review Association agrees that the arrest of minors for acts that would not be crimes if perpetrated by adults violates basic Constitutional rights. The HLRA report goes on to say that such violations lead to antagonism between non criminal youth and law enforcement and is an inefficient way to control crime. Perhaps there are criminals out at night, but placing entire demographics under house arrest is not a solution. Under that same doctrine, it is reasonable to place all men under curfew to reduce the amount of rapes and sexual assault.
In addition to being unconstitutional, curfew laws pose a problem for society. To lump all teenagers together is to stereotype in our society. According to a 1994 Gallup poll "the average adult believes juveniles commit 43 percent of violent crime, when the actual figure is 13 percent." In committing such stereotyping, curfew laws contribute to the thought that the youth of America is the downfall of our society and lead to tension between teens -- criminal and law-abiding -- and the community and law enforcement as a whole.
But curfew laws have still evolved, and many cities have daytime curfews as well. While the goal behind these daytime laws is to cut down on truancy, they often end up targeting innocent teens who are home schooled, recently graduated, in college, or young looking. In Monrovia two brothers who were home schooled were stopped 20 times walking to and from special classes, and a teenage boy was stopped five different times by five different officers on his way to a fast food restaurant during a period of daytime curfew enforcement.
Curfew laws also do not take into account the increasing responsibilities teenagers have that require them to be out of their homes, including after school programs, sports, babysitting, and jobs. A recent study found that 53 percent of American teens, from the ages of 16 to 19, work in any given week. (The International Labor Organization's study also found that in Japan, only 18 percent of teens work, and 30.8 percent of German teens work.) All of these activities can require teens to be out of their homes late in the evening, or in the early hours of the morning, where they are likely to get stopped for violating curfew. But exactly who is getting stopped for curfew violations?
Nighttime curfews are also linked to racial profiling. The Monrovia case study shows that of 791 youths cited for curfew violations from 1995 to 1997, 70 percent of them were either black or Latino. Similarly, San Jose's police arrest Latino youths disproportionally. According to statistics, Latino teens are 5 times as likely to be arrested for a curfew violation than their percentage of the entire youth population. Black and Latino teenagers in Ventura County are between 7-8 times as likely to be arrested as a white person of the same age. Fresno, Santa Clara, and Los Angeles Counties all show similar figures exposing racial profiling.
Curfews may not seem like a big issue, but they are linked to larger causes, those of our civil liberties. Curfew enforcement infringes our rights to travel, and can lead to overt racism and teen criminalization.
There are groups organizing to ensure that curfew laws are not enforced in ways that violate young people's rights. The ACLU is spearheading this effort but there are smaller groups joining the fight. Curfew.Org is a website dedicated to fighting youth curfews across the country. It is aimed towards youths and adults "interested in taking up the battle against curfew laws in their own town, and looking for a place to start or a little ammunition."
While the government has a certain right to maintain order in its cities, where do we draw the line? What if maintaining that order steps over the boundaries of parenting and raising a child? What if it crosses the line so far that it prevents us from participating in basic activities like after school sports and jobs needed to help support families? Youth fighting curfews believe that the government is stepping in where it shouldn't and they are inspiring the rest of us to defend our rights and the rights of young people everywhere.
For a fun comic view of curfew laws visit Oblivion.
For more information on curfews, visit Curfew.org.
Jeremy Heebner is a freshman at Penn State and is a Communications major with an emphasis in Journalism.