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Teen Curfew Laws ChallengedApril 30, 2009 by Matt Wagner
New York's highest court heard arguments April 28 on a challenge to the city of Rochester's juvenile curfew, the first such case to reach the state's high court. A challenge to a similar curfew in Lowell, Mass., was heard by that state's Supreme Judicial Court on April 6. Rulings in both cases could come within weeks.
The court challenges come at a time when curfew laws appear to be spreading, even in the face of research that says they don't cut teen crime
Rochester attorneys defended its curfew before the Court of Appeals as a public safety measure that reduces juvenile violence and saves live. Rochester officials enacted the curfew, which applies to youths ages 17 and under from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and midnight to 5 a.m. on weekends, after seven youths were killed in the city in 2005.
Michael Burger, the attorney for the Rochester father and his teenage son who challenged the curfew (Anonymous v. City of Rochester), argued that the ordinance enabled police to arrest and interrogate a disproportionate percentage of minorities. Burger told the court that 94 percent of the 709 youths picked up on curfew violations were black or Hispanic, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
The case reached the high court after a state Appellate Divisions court struck down the curfew in October, ruling that it had not been shown to cut youth crime. The court cited the city's own crime statistics that show juveniles are much more likely to commit crimes during hours that are not covered by the curfew. The divided panel also said that the curfew law was unconstitutional because it unduly restricted the plaintiff's freedom of movement and expression.
Earlier this month, the high court in Massachusetts heard a challenge to a nearly identical ordinance enacted in the Boston suburb of Lowell in 1994 to curtail gang violence. Two men who were arrested four years ago as 16-year-olds for violating the town's curfew brought the case (Commonwealth v. A.W. and another). One of the boys, who was visiting from Somerville, Mass., was arrested on his way to the police station to ask for directions, and the other was walking home with his older brother, the Lowell Sun reported. The names of the men are being withheld because they were juveniles at the time of the arrests.
Lowell officials contended that the curfew is a key tool for limiting gang violence and emphasized that police officers usually call parents to pick up their children rather than arresting the youths. But James Sultan, the attorney for the two men, argued that the curfew violates First Amendment rights and assigns the state responsibilities that are better left to parents, according to The Boston Globe.
Youth curfews, which are commonly employed by cities across the country to curb youth violence, have provoked legal challenges in other states, including Oregon, New Jersey and Alaska. State and federal appeals courts have differed in their rulings on the issue. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a federal curfew case that originated in Virginia.
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