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.

While all 31 Orange County cities have curfew ordinances of some sort, mostly affecting teens under 18, it was not clear Monday whether the ruling will affect them. Some officials, however, said they are confident that their curfew laws are sufficiently explicit to withstand the legal test.

"Theirs may be vague," Santa Ana Police Sgt. Bob Clark said. "Ours may not be."

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 Laguna Beach, Fullerton, Irvine, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Malibu, Oceanside, Oxnard, Palm Springs, Riverside and San Bernardino.

Jan Scanlan, a deputy city attorney for Bakersfield who organized a coalition of 114 cities to support San Diego's law, said the decision could gut the ordinances in dozens of cities that cribbed from that law.

"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.

Though Scanlan predicted 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 insisted that they had inserted unique language into their curfews to protect them from legal challenge.

"We were not that vague," Laguna Beach Police Chief Jim Spreine said of his city's 10 p.m. curfew, enacted in 1994.

For example, he said, minors are exempt from the ordinance if they are attending organized activities such as school meetings, classes, sporting events, dances, concerts, theatrical performances or religious meetings, Spreine said.

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 Appeals rejected the San Diego 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.

"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.

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."

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.

"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. Students from La Habra High recently urged their City Council to extend their 10 p.m. curfew to midnight on weekend nights for teens over 13. The council did not respond.

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.

And in Cypress, where a daytime curfew was repealed earlier this year, officials agreed with the court decision.

Cypress City Councilman Tim Keenan said officials feared arbitrary enforcement.

"My feeling going into this is we don't need another excuse for kids to be suspicious of police officers," Keenan said. "As a government, we are trying to create a positive atmosphere between the kids and police, so they think of police as their friends and someone they can go to in times of need."

But several police agencies credited their tough law for helping to make the streets safer.

"It certainly has been a very useful tool," Councilman Juan Vargas said.

Huntington Beach Police Lt. Dan Johnson said that before a 10 p.m. curfew was enacted in the city in 1995, "we had hundreds of kids packing Main Street, making it impossible for people to shop, to go to the movies. We had a problem; this has helped give us a tool."

Police in Huntington Beach detained 235 youths that first year, he said. First-time offenders simply get a warning. Subsequent offenses require that parents go to court and pay $38 an hour for the time spent by the Police Department, Johnson said.

"The vast majority of these never come back to us a second time," Johnson said.

La Habra Police Chief Steven H. Staveley said his city's curfew, which is about 30 years old, has helped reduce crimes usually committed by juveniles, such as house burglaries and car break-ins.

Downtown Laguna Beach had a problem with crowds of teenagers at night until it adopted a curfew in 1994, Police Chief Spreine said. Vandalism, graffiti and various gang-related problems have diminished since then, he said.

"It's one of the few things we have available to us to make sure that young people are home under the care of their parents at a reasonable hour," he said. "When you don't have a curfew, when you just tell the kids, 'OK, it's time to go home, it's 10 o'clock,' they leave a particular area but they don't necessarily go home."

In Costa Mesa, Police Chief David L. Snowden observed, "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. Parents should know what their kids are doing."

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

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