Courts in Alaska, New Jersey strike down curfew ordinances

Friday, April 6, 2001

Courts in New Jersey and Alaska last month struck down local curfew laws, determining that the ordinances were unconstitutional infringements upon minors’ First Amendment rights.

In one ruling, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court struck down a curfew ordinance enacted by the town of West New York. In the other, an Alaska state circuit court invalidated a curfew enacted by officials in Anchorage.

Both laws restricted youths from being in public places during the late-night and early-morning hours but allowed exemptions for students going to or from work, certain community and religious events, and emergencies.

State chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the ordinances, said such laws not only violate the assembly rights of teen-agers but are ineffective measures to curb juvenile violence.

“It makes no sense to criminalize the innocent activities of these teen-agers, and numerous other good kids like them, for problems they haven’t caused,” said David Kohane, a volunteer attorney with the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU.

The court decisions come as more and more communities impose such curfews in an effort to deter youth violence, crime and gang activity. A National League of Cities report released last year found that 110 cities established curfews over a five-year period compared to the 122 curfews set up from 1980 through 1995.

Officials in another 35 cities told the league that they were considering curfews.

Quite a few of these curfews have faced legal challenges from teen-agers and parents who say such restrictions violate a young person’s First Amendment rights to speak and to assemble.

Court decisions have been mixed. While such laws have been struck down in Iowa, Washington and California, they have been upheld in Texas and Washington, D.C.

Despite the differing results in lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of youth curfews.

In 1999, the high court turned away a challenge to a Charlottesville, Va., curfew, letting stand a lower court ruling that the curfew was a legitimate method of “reducing juvenile violence and crime.”

Both the Anchorage and West New York ordinances offered similar restrictions and exceptions as the Charlottesville curfew.

The Anchorage curfew, which took effect in 1996, made it a criminal offense for youths to be out in public during curfew hours. Officials set curfew hours from 1 to 5 a.m. every day during the summer. From September through May, the hours were from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and from 1 to 5 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

A state circuit judge determined that the curfew violated the constitutional rights of families.

A spokesman for the city of Anchorage said officials planned to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court but wouldn’t comment further.

The West New York ordinance was enacted in 1993 and prohibited minors from being in a public place between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Violators and their parents could be fined up to $1,000 or required to perform up to 90 days of community service.

The ordinance provided exemptions for teen-agers traveling to or from work, engaged in a medical emergency or traveling to or from events sponsored by community or religious groups.

The New Jersey appellate court upheld a lower court decision that permanently blocked enforcement of the ordinance, noting that there is a “strong constitutional presumption in favor of parental authority over government authority.”

The court further stated that the curfew ordinance was unconstitutional because it was “not broad enough to recognize the right of parents to permit their children to participate in many legitimate activities.”

Town officials would not return calls for comment.

But ACLU officials praised the decisions, saying the courts recognized that teen-agers have many legitimate reasons for being out at night.

“There are countless instances in which fairness and justice dictate that teens should be allowed to travel at night,” said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union. “No city council could possibly foresee every instance in which it would be good public policy to allow an exception to the curfew law.”

Kohane said the proper way to handle juvenile crime is to make arrests, not place teen-agers under house arrest.

“The police already have the ability to arrest juveniles when they break the law,” Kohane said. “The curfew would have added nothing except giving police the right to arrest the innocent as well.”

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