Time runs out on teen curfews Court says curfews violate the rights of state's minors.

August 03, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- It's after 11 o'clock on one of those warm summer nights when the humidity sticks like a layer of clammy skin.

Teen-agers strut, stand and drive along Market Street with no discernible fear of being stopped by the police officer on the other side of this small city's main strip.

"I just like to walk around and go sightseeing," says Christina Brown, 14. She's hanging out with several teen-agers in front of the closed IGA store and yelling to friends as they cruise by in cars that punctuate the night with loud heavy metal and rap.

Pockets of teen-agers like Christina converge in several areas on each side of the outskirts of the gentrified downtown, which bubbles with activity from the bars and restaurants that are definitely geared to a yuppie clientele.

One year ago, the teens might not have seemed so carefree at this time of night. The city had been enforcing a 1978 curfew ordinance that required minors under 18 to be home by 11:59 p.m. Saturdays and 11 p.m. other nights. But a Frederick County judge overturned the law Oct. 3. Then on July 9, Maryland's second highest court went even further, ruling that the law violated the constitutional rights of minors.

The Court of Special Appeals' three-judge panel, in an opinion written by Judge Diana J. Gibbon Motz, said the state's constitution does not specifically grant power to any local governments to impose curfews.

Frederick officials plan to appeal the ruling in the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. But if the decision stands, it could nullify the state's approximately 40 other curfew laws.

The local ordinances generally prohibit minors under 16 or 18 from being in public places between midnight and 6 a.m. unless accompanied by adults or attending a sanctioned public event.

In Baltimore, the curfew is in effect during the school year for minors under age 16. They are not permitted in public places without adults between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on school nights and between midnight and 6 a.m. on weekends.

The purpose stated in Baltimore's ordinance is to ensure that children complete their homework and get enough rest for the following school day. A rarity, it has the approval of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland.

But other ordinances were written without such language, which makes their existence tenuous.

Some other jurisdictions with curfew laws that are in jeopardy are Aberdeen, Chestertown, Elkton, Hagerstown, Havre de Grace, Ocean City and Westminster, according to James P. Peck, associate director of research at the Maryland Municipal League.

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel of opinions for the Maryland attorney general, said the court's decision could have a severe impact on curfew laws throughout the state.

"From my preliminary reading, it's written in such a way to have a broad impact on the ability of municipalities to write curfews," said Mr. Schwartz, adding that he is still reviewing the ruling.

The Maryland ACLU is cheering the decision because, an official said, the Frederick law and most curfew ordinances violate the fundamental right of minors by giving government too much authority over them. The ACLU had filed a brief in the Court of Special Appeals to oppose the law.

Susan Goering, legal director of the state's ACLU, said curfews often punish otherwise law-abiding minors.

"They lump those children in with people who are out to break the law," Ms. Goering said. "I think it makes sense for children not to be on the street late at night, but I think parents ought to be the ones to make that decision without interference from the government."

The Frederick curfew ordinance was imposed in 1978, but seldom enforced. When it was used, black critics contend, it was aimed at keeping blacks out of the downtown area.

This all started at 12:30 a.m. Oct. 21, 1990, when several police officers entered the Rainbow Hunan restaurant and club on North Market Street, looking for underage patrons. The club had become a popular night spot for black teen-agers, but local merchants complained to city officials about loitering and noise generated by the crowds.

During the incident, police arrested 28 black teen-agers, restrained them with handcuffs and led them to a bus outside the club where they took their pictures before driving them to the police station. None of the minors was formally charged, but they were held at the station until picked up by parents or guardians.

Two of the teen-agers arrested by police filed a complaint against the city and Police Chief Richard Ashton, alleging false imprisonment, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and other violations.

"That particular law was used to arrest African-American kids," said Willie J. Mahone, the lawyer who took the challenge to court. "Police went to a restaurant-nightclub that was conducting activities it was licensed to conduct. It was the only nightclub downtown geared to African-Americans.

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