New Curfew Wins Praise in Phoenix : Officials say tough, innovative law has aided fight against crime. Critics charge that it is unconstitutional.


Authorities say a new curfew here has given a boost to their fight against juvenile crime.

Under the program, which started on a trial basis in February and was expanded citywide in June, police officers pick up minors after hours and detain them at public recreation centers until their parents arrive.

The Arizona Civil Liberties Union has protested that such roundups are unconstitutional, but officials say they are producing results:

* Last summer, police said, violence was common when juveniles gathered at public spots such as parking lots. Officers say such get-togethers are not occurring this year.


* The incidence of gang-related violence is down. In June, the latest month for which statistics were available, there were 74 such incidents, compared to 84 a year ago.

* The curfew program is expected to net 7,000 minors this year, adding thousands of new fingerprints to the police department’s computer files, which may help solve past and future crimes.

* Police and others report fewer juveniles wandering the streets late at night, reducing their chances of committing a crime or being a crime victim.

“It’s awesome, what you don’t see out there,” said John Nelson, a Phoenix City Council member who frequently rides along with police officers on patrol.


Officials say they hope that the program will make a dent in the city’s gang problem. Police Lt. Mike McCort, head of the department’s gang enforcement unit, said 3,500 gang members have been documented in Phoenix, but the actual number is probably closer to 10,000. He said that from 1990 to 1993, the incidence of gang-related violence increased 58%.

Although Phoenix’s former curfew ordinance prohibited juveniles from being out too late, its vague language exempted 14-year-olds, its hours changed on weekends and the arrest process was time consuming, often tying up an officer for hours at a time.

As a result, the law rarely was enforced.

The new ordinance clarifies curfew hours and streamlines enforcement. Youths 15 and younger must be off the streets by 10 p.m., and those 16 and 17 must be indoors by midnight seven days a week, with exceptions for activities sanctioned by parents.


Officers spend about 20 minutes transporting curfew violators to one of four centers staffed by police officers and city recreation employees. There, police fill out a report on the minor, fingerprint and photograph the youth and call a parent or guardian. They also interview the youth about his or her personal life, then try to direct the youth toward appropriate social service agencies or programs.

“This is a very, very important aspect of the program,” said curfew coordinator Lt. Joe Klima. “It’s a good opportunity to identify problems.”

After officers finish with the juveniles, recreation instructors discuss local opportunities. Then they try to engage them in basketball, pool or some other activity.

When a parent and child leave a curfew center, they take with them an order to appear in juvenile court. A first offense results in a $56 fine or time in a diversion program. Subsequent violations carry $70 fines.


After more than 2,000 curfew arrests, officials report that problems at the centers have been minimal, repeat offenders have been few and parents have been supportive.

Merinda Lopez said she was not happy about having to retrieve her 14-year-old daughter at 2 a.m. from the west Phoenix curfew center, but she was appreciative of the program.

“I can’t be there all the time, and it’s good somebody’s watching my kids. They could be lying in a ditch somewhere,” she said.

Arizona Civil Liberties Union executive director Louis Rhodes said such rationale is dangerous.


“It really smacks of preventive detention to say: ‘We’re going to lock you up to protect you. . . . We can’t stop the bad guys, so we’ll punish the good guys,’ ” he said.

Rhodes said he believes that the law can be overturned. A federal judge last year ruled that a similar curfew ordinance in Dallas was unconstitutional, saying it “would broadly stifle the fundamental rights of the vast majority of the city’s law-abiding youths.”