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Clocks are being watched

January 18, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

When the clock strikes 11 p.m. on a weekday, or midnight on the weekend, youths in Hagerstown, Hancock and Smithsburg must be off the streets.

Williamsport's teenagers have to be inside by 10:30 p.m. every day.

In each place, it's the law.

Four of Washington County's nine municipalities have curfews, which order children to keep out of public places overnight and, theoretically, stay out of trouble. Youths could face a fine - and so could their parents.

Is it fair to restrict young people based on what they might do?

In a few notable decisions, the courts have said yes, as long as the ordinances aren't overly broad.

In 1999, a U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld Washington, D.C.'s curfew - overturning a lower court ruling that the law infringed upon, among other things, First Amendment rights of assembly and expression.

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A similar result occurred in 1993, when a different U.S. District Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling and upheld a Dallas curfew law.

"[W]hen balanced with the compelling interest sought to be addressed - protecting juveniles and preventing juvenile crime - the impositions are minor," the appellate court in Texas decided.

Once the Dallas ordinance passed a legal test, it became a model, said Jim Peck, director of research for the Maryland Municipal League, an association of town and city governments. He sent copies of it to cities and towns planning their own laws.

"Close to 30 percent of our municipalities have a curfew," he said.

In 1996, then-Lt. Gov Kathleen Kennedy Townsend distributed a sample ordinance for communities thinking of passing their own curfew.

"When curfews are well implemented, and are an element of a comprehensive crime prevention and control strategy, they have shown remarkable success," she wrote. "A well planned curfew initiative will include structured after school and evening activities and programs for youth and parents along with law enforcement support.

"Curfews can be part of a consistent message to children - and to parents - that we can set community standards and expect our children and parents to live up to them."

Public places


Curfews frequently consider "public places" to be more than just streets and sidewalks. Inside areas count, too.

Hagerstown's list includes shopping centers, theaters, restaurants, shops, bowling alleys, taverns, cafes and arcades.

Being in a vehicle constitutes being in public in Chambersburg, Pa.'s ordinance.

Young people are exempt from most curfews if they have a legitimate reason to be in public, if an adult accompanies them or if they are exercising their guaranteed freedoms of speech, assembly or religion.

In Martinsburg, W.Va., though, minors planning to exercise those rights during curfew hours must submit their plans to the police department in advance.

The general purpose of curfews is to clamp down on delinquency. But before passing curfew laws, municipalities are encouraged to show that they have problems with juvenile crime.

However, crimes must have occurred during the same hours the curfew would be in place, which isn't always true, said Deborah Jeon, the managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Jeon said curfews were trendy in the 1990s, especially when President Bill Clinton expressed his support for them, but interest waned as challenges arose.

Now, even current laws don't appear to be enforced, she said.

"We do use it, but not to make arrests," Smithsburg Police Chief Mike Potter said. "It's a useful tool."

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said that not only does a curfew cut down on mischief, it protects the very people it restricts.

"It's not good for 14-, 15-year-old kids to be hanging out" late, he said.

A curfew is a good way "to look out for our young people," Martinsburg Police Chief Ted Anderson agreed.

Jeon said a better approach is "Operation Midnight," a program Salisbury, Md., borrowed from Charleston, S.C. Children are only subject to a curfew if their parents sign them up for it.

Steering clear of trouble


Mia Henry, 15, of Hagerstown said she thinks her city's curfew is fair.

"But when it's summer time, sometimes you like to hang out (later) with friends," she said.

Still, teenagers she knows head home when they're supposed to, she said.

Sitting at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown Thursday evening, Michael Jones, 43, of Hagerstown said he favors a curfew.

His daughter, Courtney, 12, didn't know what to think at first; all she was sure of was the law didn't apply to her. Courtney's bedtime - 9 p.m. - is her curfew, Michael Jones said.

Then, he prompted Courtney to think about the implications.

What would happen to children if they stayed out late?

"They'd get in trouble," she said.

What bad things might they do?

"Drink."

What else?

"Smoke."

What else? What do they teach you in school to stay away from? What word starts with D?

"Drugs."

With that, Courtney declared, with conviction, that a curfew is a good idea.

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