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Mayor, Judge at Odds Over Curfew Enforcement

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The city’s teen-age domain is malls and outdoor shopping centers, where skateboarders rule and other teens just hang out.

Merchants complain about being surrogate baby-sitters, about vandalism and shopper intimidation caused by loitering teen-agers. The kids complain too, echoing a familiar refrain of nowhere to go, nothing to do.

For two years, Mission Viejo officials have taken action against teen loitering, passing an anti-skateboarding law and issuing citations for curfew violations.

And now, the curfew problem has sparked a brief and pointed war of words between city officials and the county Juvenile Court system.

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Last month, Mission Viejo Mayor Susan Withrow wrote county Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, claiming juvenile courts were routinely dismissing curfew cases.

“I am asking for your assistance in making sure the court does not dismiss these cases,” she wrote. “If that is, or has been the case . . . then the people we serve need to know it.”

The letter was passed along to presiding Juvenile Court Judge Frank Fasel, whose response was swift and vehement.

Fasel replied to Withrow:

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“I find these unfounded and unsubstantiated conclusions to be professionally insulting,” Fasel said in his letter. “In the future, I suggest you be more certain about your information before making reckless and unfounded representations.”

According to Fasel, 40 Mission Viejo curfew citations were heard by the Juvenile Court from February through June. Only one case was dismissed, according to the judge.

“Please keep in mind that this is a court of law and not a rubber stamp for the Sheriff’s Department and the city of Mission Viejo,” he wrote.

The mayor remains convinced that too many cases are being dismissed, and she thinks the judge’s response was an overreaction.

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“We’ve been dissatisfied with what we feel is a significant number of cases being dismissed,” Withrow said. “We’re simply trying to better the situation. I really feel the whole thing has been blown out of proportion.”

Fasel could not be reached for direct comment.

Capt. Randy Blair, who heads Mission Viejo’s police services, said his agency has not kept figures of dismissed curfew citations, but he indicated there have been “several” in the past year.

Although several strip malls have reported curfew problems, most of the complaints center on two adjacent outdoor shopping centers, Portola Plaza and Trabuco Hills Center, according to city officials and local business leaders.

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Blair said the area has drawn some gang and drug activity. Large groups of teen-agers also exert a scary, physical presence that intimidates shoppers and merchants, he said.

The city has been trying to control the situation in the shopping centers in recent years.

When a Taco Bell became a hangout, city officials negotiated with management to stop a free drink refill policy. And when business owners in the centers began seeing a rise in skateboarders, the city passed its anti-skateboarding ordinance.

“They’ve tried to push us out, for sure,” said Tim Wilson, 17, standing in front of Long’s Drug Store. “But it won’t work because there’s nothing for us to do in this place.”

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City officials and community members have formed a group of all ages that hopes to convert a city recreation building into a teen center by next year.

In the meantime, some parents say the net thrown out by police has caught innocent teen-agers engaged in normal activities.

James P. Santagata filed a claim against the city in March, alleging his son, Brian, has been wrongfully cited issued a citation twice in the past 18 months.

Blair said he was unable to comment on the case because of Santagata’s pending claim.

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However, Withrow believes that Mission Viejo youths engaged in innocent activities are not being cited unfairly by police.

“Only a small percentage of kids in that situation get caught,” she said. “The (curfew) law is not designed to imprison them in their home and we’re not enforcing it that way.”


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