Sponsors of a beefed-up youth curfew measure approved by the City Council last night say it will keep Baltimore youth safe and out of trouble, but the ACLU opposes it, calling the ordinance “deeply flawed,” “unworkable” and an invitation to “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
“The proposal infringes upon fundamental parental rights by depriving parents of discretion to raise their children in ways that make sense for the family,” Sonia Kumar, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, wrote in a letter to the Council.
The tightened curfew rules in Council Bill 13-0261 increase the likelihood that a child allowed to be outside by parents who consider him or her to be safe and responsible could be taken away in handcuffs, Kumar wrote.
“Under the proposal, a mom can’t let her son stay late at a friend’s house because he and his brother just had an argument and need a little space from each other,” Kumar wrote. “She can’t ask an older daughter to run to the store for baby formula and diapers for an infant who can’t be left unsupervised.”
The bill calls for all children under 14 to be inside by 9 p.m. year-round. Youngsters ages 14 to 16 could stay outside until 10 p.m. on school nights and until 11 p.m. on other nights.
Under current rules, all children and teens younger than 17 can stay out until 11 on weeknights and until midnight on weekends.
The bill also expands the daytime curfew hours, which are currently 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., making them 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. It eliminates an exception that permits young people running errands for their parents or who are married.
The fine for the parents of children caught outside after curfew is increased under the measure, from $300 to $500. To avoid a citation, parents and their children must attend city-approved “family counseling” classes.
Proponents: Protecting Children from Neglect and Crime
Approved by a vote of 11-2 (Councilmen Carl Stokes and Warren Branch voted “no”), the measure is considered likely to pass when it comes up for final passage next month. It was introduced amid continuing concern over juvenile crime and violence across the city.
“Some believe this legislation will not deter youth from committing crime, but most believe students will be safe if they are at home,” wrote Shalik D. Fulton, chairman of the Baltimore City Youth Commission, in a letter of support.
The bill’s chief sponsor, 2nd District Councilman Brandon M. Scott, points to the services young people and their families will be able to access after a curfew violation sends them to planned “youth connection centers.”
Police Chief Anthony W. Batts supports the measure, as does Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
At a February forum about a crime spike in Canton, the mayor spoke strongly about her distress at the sight of 6- and 7-year-olds showing up at the summer curfew center at 1 in the morning.
“What must be going on in their lives – or not going on – for that to happen?” she said.
But the ACLU, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police, argue that the tougher curfew will be ineffective and places a burden on police officers who are given few guidelines – and wide discretion – about how to enforce it.
Critics: Creating Crimes Where None Existed
The only way for police to enforce the law fairly, Kumar says, is by stopping every young-looking person since, before stopping them, they cannot know whether they are engaged in one of the exceptions permitted by the law.
“Police cannot tell, simply by looking at a teenager, whether he or she is walking to or from school, home from work, or a basketball game, or, whether the activity she just left was properly supervised, as the curfew law requires,” Kumar wrote. “It is equally difficult for a young person to prove, in many instances, that she was where she said she was.”
Under the measure, police can demand a school ID or other form of identification from a suspected curfew violator.
“Since such proof is something that many youth are unlikely to have, brief stops can escalate into confrontational encounters, creating crimes where none existed – not only for youth, but also adults,” Kumar wrote.
“Moreover, these stops are likely to be concentrated upon those areas with the greatest police presence at night – poor and minority neighborhoods – and disproportionately upon people of color.”
Although violators are not put into the juvenile system, their treatment in some ways will be hard to distinguish from that of criminals, Kumar argues.
“BPD has repeatedly stated that its policy when transporting anyone – regardless of age – is to handcuff them. Are police to make an exception when transporting curfew violators?” she wrote.
“If a young person starts to run away, are police to pursue them? To use force, including weapons, to stop them?”
Police already have the authority to intervene when young people are doing something illegal or are in danger, Kumar says, adding that “there is no evidence locking people inside keeps them from being victimized or delinquent.”
Constitutional and Policy Questions
Kumar said the proposal raises significant concerns about its constitutionality. In 1995, a similarly worded juvenile curfew imposed in Frederick was struck down by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Other laws were held to be unconstitutional in California, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Compared to curfews that have stood up to constitutional challenges, Baltimore’s is “far-reaching and extreme.”
“We have found no case upholding a curfew as early as 9 p.m. or that requires police to differentiate between young people under or over 14.”
The ACLU letter lauds the bill for being “well-intentioned,” but says it addresses problems police shouldn’t be tasked with solving.
“The city should continue focusing its efforts on building its capacity to provide supportive services and resources.”