Assured of its legal soundness, Schmoke signs revised curfew ordinance

July 28, 1995|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

It is once again illegal for juveniles in Baltimore to be on the streets after midnight Fridays and Saturdays and after 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signed a revised curfew bill yesterday, after an expert on constitutional law reported that he believed the legislation would withstand a challenge.

The new curfew takes effect immediately. It replaces a year-old ordinance that the city stopped enforcing three weeks ago after Maryland's highest court struck down a curfew in Frederick that served as the model for Baltimore's 1994 law.

Mr. Schmoke put his signature on the bill at his weekly news briefing -- two weeks after the City Council pushed through the revisions at a special session. He said at the time that he would sign the council's new bill only if he received advice that it was constitutional.

Yet, the mayor and legal experts said yesterday that they believed the new bill would be challenged.

"I fully anticipate that we'll be in court before the end of this calendar year," Mr. Schmoke said. "We intend to vigorously defend the ordinance."

Mr. Schmoke, who often has voiced ambivalence about curfews, reiterated yesterday that the new law is not "a panacea."

"It's not the answer to juvenile crime, but I'm glad that we have this now," he said.

City Councilman Martin O'Malley, the 3rd District Democrat who was a key sponsor of the council legislation, said yesterday that he was "delighted" that the mayor signed the bill. But criticized Mr. Schmoke for not acting sooner.

"If his lawyers had come to any one of our hearings, he could have signed it two weeks ago," said Mr. O'Malley, one of two council members to be pelted with bottles and batteries on a publicized late-night tour of Park Heights Avenue to dramatize the need for the curfew.

But City Solicitor Neal M. Janey defended the delay and the hiring of Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor and constitutional lawyer, to conduct a review.

"There are very serious consequences to not doing it right," Mr. Janey said of the bill. Maryland's highest court "has said if it is unconstitutional, the city, its public officials, its police officers, anybody who has anything to do with the enactment or enforcement of this law would face monetary damages."

Mr. Warnken said there was no "absolute, definitive answer" to the new law's constitutionality, but added, "In my judgment, this ordinance will be upheld."

The fact that Baltimore's law is based on a Dallas curfew law that has been upheld by a federal appeals court is no guarantee that Baltimore's law would withstand a similar challenge because the court in the Dallas case did not consider all possible issues, Mr. Warnken said.

To strengthen the law's chances in court, the council should develop statistics on juvenile crime and youthful victims to demonstrate "compelling need" and clarify some ambiguities in definitions when it returns from summer recess, he said.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was not sure if the ACLU would challenge the law but added, "I fully expect it to be challenged."

Like the old law, Baltimore's new ordinance applies to juveniles under age 17. It forbids them from being on the streets except in front of their homes or in a public place between midnight and 6 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays. It includes jail terms and fines for parents of violators.

Where it differs is in spelling out what activities juveniles may stay out late to attend -- the section of the Frederick law that the Maryland Court of Appeals said was unconstitutionally vague.

Those include official school or religious activities and recreation events sponsored by the city or community organizations. It also exempts youths going to or from work or running errands for their parents.

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