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Council rejects juvenile curfew

Impassioned teens and others say it would have been unfair. Despite softening the plan, the City Council votes against it.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The City Council rejected a proposed juvenile curfew Thursday after more than 35 residents said it would punish law-abiding kids and trample on constitutional rights.

"People should be innocent until completely proven guilty," Laurel Dickman a 16-year-old Gibbs High School student, told the council. "Even though we're not 18, we're still citizens of the United States."

Even council member Jay Lasita, who proposed the idea, ended up voting against it. Lasita said that was a strategic step. Under council rules, a member who votes in the majority can move to reconsider the decision at the next meeting.

That left council members Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster standing alone on the 2-6 vote, even after Lasita introduced several amendments to soften the law.

Lasita's amendments would have exempted 16- and 17-year-olds from the curfew and allowed all teens to stay out until midnight on weekdays, not 11 p.m., as he originally proposed.

More than 100 people packed the City Council chambers.

Fifteen people spoke in favor of a curfew, saying they want to protect kids from dangers on the street, and that they want to protect themselves from being victims of youth crime.

"I've had six teenagers steal my car in the middle of the night," said Virginia Hull. "Who will protect me from them?"

But the most impassioned speeches were against the curfew, which some speakers equated with the laws of Nazi Germany and feudal lords. Two speakers presented petitions to the council they said contained 700 signatures opposing a curfew.

Lili Ringold-Brown submitted one of them. The teenager quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous letter from the Birmingham jail, in which the civil rights leader said unjust laws are those which one group imposes on another group but not on itself. She said the curfew would treat all teens as likely lawbreakers.

"Adults don't seem to see us as individuals any more, but as a swarming mass of unruly children," she said.

Lasita tried to explain that his primary goal was to have police officers intervene with teens who are having problems. But even the softened version of the law would have meant fines or arrest for teens found in public without their parents in the early morning.

Even some curfew supporters found the prospect of arrest distasteful. The law also would have punished parents who allowed their children to be in public during the restricted hours.

Opponents feared police would single out minority youths and that the curfew would make youths view government as an enemy. It also would prompt police to arrest some children who might otherwise never enter the criminal justice system, they said.

Pro-curfew resident Paul Dickens angered many in the audience when he compared the curfew to the pet leash law, which he said promotes courtesy among residents.

"We have some common-sense laws for pets," he said. "People should keep dogs on a leash. Why? because they bite people."

"I'd like to say I'm not a dog," teenager Mary Ernst said indignantly. "I've never stolen a car, and I do not need to be kept on a leash."

Some speakers said the curfew would set back race relations in the city, which have been mending since civil disturbances in 1996.

"Any law which presumes the criminality of youth is cynical and antagonistic," said Chimurenga Waller, who recently lost an election for a Pinellas County School Board seat. He is the president of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, a black socialist group.

Although some on the council and Mayor David Fischer said they respect Lasita's desire to help children, many of them said a curfew was the wrong way to do it.

"I just don't believe it's government's role to be a parent," council chair and mayoral candidate Larry Williams said.

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