The problem with curfew laws
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2002
In overturning juvenile curfews in Tampa and Pinellas Park, the 2nd District Court of Appeal made a strong statement about what is wrong with such laws. Both cities claimed the purpose of the curfews was to reduce juvenile crime, but the curfews made every child a potential criminal for merely being in a public place at the wrong time. Accordingly, the court found that those laws are unconstitutional because they are "not the least intrusive means of accomplishing the stated purpose."
The ruling reversed an earlier finding by the same court and came after the Florida Supreme Court ordered that the curfew laws should get strict constitutional scrutiny. They failed that test. Pinellas Park had included some crime statistics in the case that supposedly proved there were fewer juvenile offenses after the curfew was enacted. The appellate court did not find the information convincing, however, because it did not show the time of day the crimes were committed. In fact, the court noted a U.S. Justice Department study that showed juvenile crime peaks at 3 p.m., after school lets out, and again at 6 p.m., yet the curfews weren't enforced until 11 p.m. So it was not clear from the statistics that the curfew had any impact on the rate of juvenile crime in the city.
While Pinellas Park officials were disappointed by the ruling, the court actually did both communities a favor. Police find that enforcing a curfew detracts from their other duties. That could be why Tampa police spokeswoman Katie Hughes was philosophical about the latest development. "In most cases, there was a better, less time-consuming way to deal with juveniles out late," she said.
Curfews have passed constitutional muster elsewhere when they are limited to defined area where juvenile crime is a known, and verifiable problem. That is not the approach used by Tampa, Pinellas Park and other Florida cities that make curfews citywide. Other curfews could survive court challenge because each law is judged individually, based on its merits.
Judge Stevan T. Northcutt, who found the Tampa and Pinellas Park curfew laws unconstitutional both times the cases came before the 2nd District Court of Appeal, made the most eloquent argument against broad enforcement of a curfew. In a concurring addendum to the ruling, he wrote: "I must stress my view that it is an open question whether the city's interest in protecting children's welfare can ever justify a blanket prohibition against them leaving their homes during specified hours."
We agree. Cities can make better use of their law enforcement resources by targeting juvenile crime, not by targeting law-abiding young people.
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