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Curfew

Sept 2, 2008
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Curfew

Curfews are as old as William the Conqueror and as new, maybe, as Mayor Robert Duffy. They are very popular, between 70-75% of cities reporting curfew laws in the late 1990’s. These laws mostly restrict the movement of juveniles between certain hours. Curfew supporters justify the laws as tools to curb juvenile violence and the victimization of juveniles. They do so even though a recent review of ten studies concluded that “the weight of scientific evidence … fails to support the argument that curfews reduce crime and criminal victimization.” Adams, The Effectiveness of Juvenile Curfews at Crime Prevention, 587 Annals Am. Acad. Pol. and Soc. Sci. 136, 138 (2003). What do the courts think of juvenile curfew laws? Remember just because a law may seem stupid or not likely to achieve its objective does not make it unconstitutional. In our region, the states of New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, we do have a recent federal appellate court decision on the subject. Ramos v. Town of Vernon, 353 F.3d 171 (2nd Cir. 2003). It sets a moderately high standard that a curfew law must satisfy to pass constitutional muster. Back in the early 1990’s, the quiet town of Vernon, Connecticut, witnessed the beginnings of a crime wave. A councilperson would later testify that she observed “an increase in the number of people on the street and an increase in the number of younger people” on certain streets. Also in 1994 a sixteen-year-old was murdered in his home. The deputy mayor declared that “he never anticipated or heard of anything like that” happening in “our backyard.” Two months later the Vernon town council adopted a curfew that prohibited minors from remaining in any public place between 11 P.M. and 5 A.M. On Friday and Saturday nights the starting hour was pushed back to midnight. Certain exceptions were made, for example, emergency errands, work, and school. A minor repeatedly violated the curfew and was fined. He and his mother sued, alleging that the town was violating their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The court decided the case under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It first reaffirmed that every person, regardless of age, has the constitutional right to freedom of movement. Id. at 176. Such a right is not absolute. A government may limit a minor’s exercise of the right, if the limitation serves “important governmental objectives” and “the discriminatory means (are) substantially related to the achievement of those objectives. Id. at 180, citing Wengler v. Druggists Mut. Ins. Co., 446 U.S. 142, 150 (1980) (emphasis added). This is the test for “intermediate scrutiny” of classifications, a test which lies between the extremes of rational basis review and strict scrutiny. Intermediate scrutiny is used to review laws that employ semi-suspect classifications, such as gender. Vernon’s ordinance had three goals. The plaintiffs and the town agreed that two of them — protecting minors from harm at night and protecting the general population from nighttime juvenile crime — were important government interests. In addition, Vernon had the burden of proving the substantiality of the relationship between the limitations of the curfew and these goals. It did not have to prove “to a scientific certainty” a substantial relationship. Ramos v. Town of Vernon, supra at 183. On the other hand, it could not rely on “the general assumption that children are more vulnerable than adults.” It had to show that its law was the product of “reasoned analysis.” Id. at 185-186. Vernon failed to meet its burden of proof on this point. It did not record the council’s discussions on the need for a curfew or the research into deciding the scope of the curfew. The testimony was anecdotal and did not indicate that youths were causing trouble or being victimized, let alone between the hours of 11 and 5. Even one of the town’s expert witnesses characterized the curfew as “a knee jerk reaction.” The Equal Protection Clause does not bar the City of Rochester from enacting a juvenile curfew. But equal protection does require the City to “carefully stud(y) the contours of the problem it (is) seeking to address and legislate in accordance with its findings.” Id. at 186, citing Buzzetti v. City of N.Y., 140 F.3d 134, 142 (2nd Cir. 1998). Will it do so?

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