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San Diego Teen Curfew Found Unconstitutional

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A tough San Diego curfew law banning youths from hanging out in public after 10 p.m. is unconstitutional because it’s too broad, too vague and interferes with parents’ rights to raise their children as they choose, an appeals court ruled Monday.

The decision could gut similar curfew ordinances in dozens of cities, according to Jan Scanlan, a deputy city attorney for Bakersfield who organized a coalition of 114 cities to urge the court to uphold the San Diego law.

San Diego officials--like their counterparts around the state--have credited strict curfew laws with cutting juvenile crime and are starting to rack up statistics that they say support those claims.

Cities across Southern California had pleaded with the court to uphold San Diego’s curfew, among them Culver City, Irvine, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Malibu, Oceanside, Oxnard, Palm Springs, Riverside and San Bernardino.

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“People tend to mimic each others’ ordinances--we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so if yours works, we say, ‘Let’s copy yours,’ ” Scanlan said. Now, however, the dozens of cities that cribbed from San Diego’s law will have to start from scratch, because curfews will “be unenforceable across the board wherever the language is the same,” Scanlan said.

Though Scanlan estimated that the court’s decision would have a broad impact, she did not know which cities might be affected. And officials in several Southland cities, including Los Angeles and Glendale, insisted that they had inserted unique language into their curfews to protect them from legal challenge.

“The constitutionality of our ordinance was discussed at great length,” said Ted Goldstein, a spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.

In San Diego, City Atty. Casey Gwinn is recommending the City Council rewrite the ordinance.

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If the city revamps its law, Deputy City Atty. James Chapin said not much would change on the streets: Police are already refraining from enforcing the harshest--and, to the court, the most objectionable--provisions of the curfew.

As written, San Diego’s curfew law is considered one of the toughest in the nation.

No one under 18 is allowed to “loiter, idle, wander, stroll or play” in public after 10 p.m. on any night of the week unless supervised by an adult. The exceptions are for juveniles on their way to work or to a school-sponsored activity, or on an emergency errand for their parents.

Thousands of violators have been arrested, taken to the police station, fingerprinted and photographed. They face fines, community service and--if they are repeat offenders--behavior counseling. Dozens of parents have been hauled into court as well.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal rejected the law for three reasons.

First, the judges deemed the language too vague. Youths scanning the list of prohibited activities could not be expected to understand exactly what kind of behavior was illegal, the court ruled. And police had too much discretion in deciding how to enforce the law.

Second, the court found that the curfew unfairly blocked teens from exercising their right to free speech. They could not, for example, stay out late to attend a political rally, or to pray at midnight Mass. Writing for the court, Judge Charles Wiggins noted that “the ordinance restricted minors’ ability to engage in many 1st Amendment activities during curfew hours.”

Finally, the court ruled that the curfew burdened parents as well as minors by usurping their rights as guardians.

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“The ordinance was an exercise in sweeping state control irrespective of parents’ wishes,” Wiggins wrote. “Without proper justification, it violated the fundamental right to rear children without undue interference.”

The judges made clear that less restrictive curfews are acceptable. And several Southern California cities have been careful to avoid the kind of blanket restrictions that drew the court’s censure in the San Diego case.

In Monrovia, which extends a youth curfew to daytime, “our ordinance has narrowly drafted and clearly defined exceptions,” said City Atty. Michele Bagneris.

And in Laguna Beach, Police Chief Jim Spreine said the city’s night-time curfew should succeed where San Diego’s did not because “We were not that vague.”

Even the attorney who challenged the San Diego law said other cities’ curfews could well survive the ruling.

“This opinion deals with the language of this curfew specifically,” said John Clarke, a San Diego lawyer who took the case for free for the American Civil Liberties Union. “I don’t think the court made any broad pronouncements.” San Diego’s law was especially objectionable, Clarke said, because “it essentially put kids under house arrest after 10 p.m.”

But Chapin, the deputy city attorney, said he believed such tough language was vital to keep the curfew law from becoming a farce.

If Monday’s ruling forces cities to let juveniles roam the streets for any kind of activity protected under the 1st Amendment--including hanging out with buddies--curfew laws would have “no teeth at all,” he said.

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“The 1st Amendment exception is going a step too far,” Chapin said. “You can immediately see how it can be construed: any time you get together with your friends--or with your gang--you could argue that your freedom of association must be protected.”

Teenagers affected by the law, however, say they have the absolute right to hang out in a restaurant at 11 p.m. if they want to, or to stargaze in a city park.

Terra Lawson-Remer, an 18-year-old San Diego resident who challenged the law with help from the ACLU, said she and her friends often hang out after 10 p.m--especially on weekends--studying in coffee shops, reading poetry on the beach or noshing on late-night snacks. One of her friends was arrested for eating in a Mexican restaurant after water polo practice--at 10:20 p.m., she said.

“That’s just not acceptable at all that anyone can be punished for . . . participating in a law-abiding activity just because they’re under 18,” said Lawson-Remer, who just finished her freshman year at Yale University.

But San Diego officials credited their tough law for helping to make the streets safer. Though Chapin contended that the city never really enforced the law to its maximum potential, Councilman Juan Vargas said he asked for--and received--a tough police crackdown on vagrant juveniles in his district.

“It certainly has been a very useful tool,” Vargas said.

Police too praise the curfew for delivering a double benefit: It keeps teens from hurting others and from being hurt themselves.

Since the City Council ordered police in June 1994 to enforce the curfew law more rigorously, officers have recorded a 40% drop in the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes, San Diego Police Officer Paul Salas said.

At the same time, fewer youths have been victimized at night. “We made them less of a target,” Salas said. Police tallied 195 attacks against juveniles last year, compared with 224 in the year before the curfew enforcement. More recent statistics are not available.

Officials in other cities also are enthusiastic about their curfew ordinances.

“We’ve got tremendous success here,” Los Angeles police Sgt. Michael Bareda said.

Bareda said officers in the Hollenbeck district make two sweeps per month looking for curfew violators, focusing on teens 13 to 16. And he said the officers try to stay flexible, rather than arresting everyone out after the deadline.

“It’s never been abused,” Bareda said. “If you’ve got kids going to a party and they stop off at the McDonalds for a bite to eat there is no problem.”

In Orange County, all 31 cities have curfew ordinances of some sort.

“I don’t want to paint with a wide brush here, but the fact of the matter is if parents would do their jobs the police would never be forced to deal with curfew laws,” said Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden. “Parents should know what their kids are doing.”

Times staff writers Tony Perry and Tina Nguyen contributed to this story.


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