Federal Judge Strikes Down District of Columbia Curfew for Teenagers

May 31, 1989 2 min read

A federal district judge in Washington last week barred the District of Columbia City Council from enforcing a law that would have made it illegal for youths to go out on the streets at night, calling it “a bull in a china shop of constitutional values.”

Judge Charles R. Richey ruled that the proposed emergency curfew law, which was adopted by the city council in April, “could not be implemented without violating the constitutional rights of thousands of innocent minors.”

The law casts aside a juvenile’s First and Fifth Amendment rights “like so much straw,” Judge Richey said, adding that it “subjects the District’s juveniles to virtual house arrest each night without differentiating either among those juveniles likely to embroil themselves in mischief, or among those activities most likely to produce harm.”

The judge had temporarily halted enforcement of the curfew in April in response to a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area.

“We’re delighted by the ruling,” said Elizabeth Symonds, an aclu staff lawyer. “The judge is saying that there’s nothing wrong with an innocent youth going out at night to gaze at the stars, or see the monuments downtown by moonlight.”

The city council approved the law as an effort to cut down on the city’s soaring homicide rate, which is blamed largely on the drug trade.

The curfew would have prohibited youths under the age of 18 from pub8lic areas between the hours of 11 P.M. and 6 A.M. during the week, and midnight and 6 A.M. on weekends. There were some exemptions to the law, including youths returning from a school or church event, or on an emergency errand for a parent.

Under the law, juveniles who violated the curfew would be sanctioned, and their parents would be fined.

City officials had said the measure was intended to protect juveniles from the dangers of the streets at night, as well as to limit their likelihood of becoming involved in illegal activities.

In his ruling, Judge Richey argued that the court “recognizes that, in the eyes of many, the crippling effects of crime demand stern responses.”

But he noted that the curfew law “addresses the problem through means that are stern to the point of unconstitutionality.”

The judge also noted in his ruling that, of the 26 juveniles killed in the city in 1988, half were at home; not one young person died “at a time or place that he or she would not have been had the curfew been in effect,” he concluded.

The judge added that the criminal activities the law seeks to thwart are “already illegal and carry sanctions far more painful than a night of detention.”

“Logic thus suggests,” he continued, “that the only juveniles for whom the act will likely have meaning will be those already inclined to obey the law.”

The District of Columbia corporation counsel has not yet determined whether the city will appeal the ruling, according to a spokesman for the law office.

A temporary curfew law that would impose the same restrictions for only 255 days was passed as a separate bill by the city council in April. That measure is currently being reviewed by the Congress, which may veto it, aides say.

If it is approved, it will go into effect in June. Ms. Symonds said the aclu has moved to amend the group’s challenge to block the temporary law as well.

In his ruling last week, Judge Richey said the court would not address that challenge because the city’s corporation counsel had not yet responded to the aclu’s motion.--lj

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 1989 edition of Education Week as Federal Judge Strikes Down District of Columbia Curfew for Teenagers