Curfew to keep youths off streets is now off the books

Judge strikes down country's first daytime curfew. Whether suchanti-truancy laws are constitutional is still an open question.

Nearly five years ago, voters in this town of 50,000 put themselves on the map as the America's toughest truant-busters. No one under 18, said the country's first daytime curfew law, could "loiter, idle, wander, or be" in public on school days from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Two years later, President Clinton recognized the community's efforts as a national model, while police lauded a dramatic fall in crime and school dropout rates. Scores of towns in California - nearly 80 by one count - and several states mimicked the ordinance, hoping for the same dramatic results.

Now the brakes could be applied on dozens of daytime curfew laws as Monrovia's prototype has been struck down by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. Judge Carolyn Kuhl held that Monrovia's ordinance contradicts state truancy law by not permitting the same level of freedom allowed by current state law.

"This ruling is sending a signal to cities all over California and other states that they'd better look at the state education code as well as existing state law before they draft a workable daytime curfew law," says James Kushner, professor at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles.

The judge found that the city ordinance allowed police to fine students - $135 for a first offense - for absences that were legitimate under state education laws. Those include funerals, religious holidays, health appointments, personal emergencies, and outings supervised by parents or guardians.

Her finding did not, however, address the constitutionality of the law or the complaints of harassment made by plaintiffs.

'A police state'

A coalition of private-school and home-schooled children filed suit in 1997, alleging the ordinance was unconstitutional on the grounds that it gave police broad rights to stop any unsupervised youth on the street during school hours.

"It was like a police state with martial law in this town," says Rosemary Harrahill, mother of several home-schooled children who had been stopped 22 times by officers in the ordinance's first nine months.

The 1994 law came amid a coast-to-coast proliferation of nighttime curfews, as communities sought ways to crack down on rising juvenile crime.

Such crime rates have dropped significantly, but at the same time brought a proliferation of lawsuits in many states, often with conflicting findings.

A Virginia case last year upheld a juvenile curfew, rejecting an argument that included the rights of parents to supervise their kids. But another case, Hutchins v. District of Columbia, went the other way, holding that a nighttime curfew violated freedom of movement rights.

Because of these and the Monrovia finding, Kushner says a period of increased litigation is likely to follow until the US Supreme Court takes up the issue with a broad case that can clarify the matter.

"We are likely to see a lot more challenges to these laws based on such issues as freedom of religion, travel, parental control, and even just plain vague wording," says Mr. Kushner.

Monrovia officials say they are going to change the wording of their law to coincide with the judge's decision, while other California communities say they are going to hold back or temporarily rescind their laws until courts clarify the issue.

"We don't look at this as a big setback," says Monrovia Police Chief Joseph Santoro. Citing a string of statistics that point to the curfew's success - a 61 percent drop in residential burglary and a 57 percent drop in drug activity - he says a majority of town members support some version of the curfew. "We will merely reword this to coincide with the judge's wishes," he says.

Lifting the curfew

But the town of Camarillo, about 50 miles north, is rescinding its Monrovia-like curfew until further notice. "We feel it would not be prudent to continue with our ordinance until these objections are clarified," says Camarillo police chief, Cmdr. Craig Husband.

In the meantime, both opponents and proponents of daytime curfew laws say they are redoubling their efforts.

"Daytime curfews teach our kids that it is normal for police to regularly detain and question innocent people - this is unacceptable in a free society," says Robyn Nordell, head of Citizens for Responsible and Constitutional Laws.

"We feel the daytime curfew does what it is supposed to - keep kids in school and lower the crime rate at the same time," says Capt. Gary Hicken, acting police chief of Buena Park, Calif.

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