District of Columbia Weighing Curfew for Teenagers
Seeking to change the perception of Washington as the nation's "murder capital," the District of Columbia City Council has adopted legislation that would impose a citywide curfew for all young people under the age of 18.
But law-enforcement officials and civil-rights groups have reacted negatively to the plan, and as of late last week Mayor Marion S. Barry had not approved it.
The mayor has until March 15 to sign or veto the legislation. A spokesman for Mr. Barry said he was "still considering his options," and that he might amend the bill to appease concerns raised by the city's chief of police, Maurice T. Turner.
Earlier this month, Mr. Turner criticized the proposal, saying it would be difficult to enforce and would pull police manpower away from the city's escalating drug wars.
Lawyers for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have warned that they will file suit against the city if the mayor signs the legislation, arguing that it is a blatant violation of the First Amendment's freedom-of-association clause.
Similar arguments have been raised in several other cities where curfew laws have been adopted, in4cluding Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Trenton, N.J.
The bill in Washington would impose a curfew of 11 P.M. on weeknights, and midnight on weekends, for youths under the age of 18.
Introduced as emergency legislation, the measure would expire after 90 days unless officials make it permanent.
Police would have the right to detain violators at a police station until they were released to a parent or guardian. If no guardian claimed the child, he or she would be held by police until 6 A.M. the next day, according to the mayor's spokesman.
Youths who work at night, or have a "legitimate" reason to be out after hours would need to obtain an affidavit signed by their parent or guardian and an employer, the proposal states.
The city council's unanimous approval of the measure reflected, members said, their desire to counter the city's serious problems with violent crime, including a record number of drug-related murders and several shootings at local high schools.
But Elizabeth Symonds, a staff lawyer for the aclu National Capital Area in Washington, said repre8sentatives from her organization who have been studying the effectiveness of such laws in other cities have found "no indication that a curfew will reduce crime."
"There is no sense in making innocent and law-abiding teenagers pay a penalty for the existence of drugs and violent crime in a city," she said.
Such laws, in effect, force policemen to "become babysitters," Ms. Symonds argued, when they should be out pursuing "major violators of criminal laws."
Several juvenile-curfew laws have been challenged on constitutional grounds, according to the aclu lawyer, and at least one has been struck down.
And in Detroit, where such a law is in effect, the aclu successfully sued the city on behalf of a 17-year-old curfew violator last year.
But Fred Zaharoff, a spokesman for the Detroit police department, said the law had helped reduce crime in the city.
Adopted in 1987, Detroit's law prohibits youths under the age of 15 from roaming the streets after 8 P.M. The city's 16- and 17-year olds have a curfew of 9 P.M. on weekdays, and 11 P.M. on weekends.
According to Mr. Zaharoff, Detroit's law works because police use "discretion" in enforcement. "This is not a concentration-camp-style law," he said, "you don't jump on every kid."
"If a policeman saw a group of 15-year-olds standing around, smoking cigarettes and harassing people, they might enforce the law. But if a 15-year-old is quietly walking home from grandma's house, enforcement could be more lax," he said.
Ms. Symonds of the aclu contended, however, that "discretion" could open the door to discriminatory treatment under the law.
Meanwhile, Washington's Mayor Barry last week proposed legislation that would establish "drug-free zones" within 1,000 feet of all public schools in the city.
The measure, which is now before the city council, would provide a mandatory three-year sentence for those caught distributing drugs or engaging in violent acts within the school "zones."