Juvenile curfew: is it past time

Lest diehard libertarians and free-spirited youths brand us, by turns, fascists and fuddy-duddies, let us assure all that we weren’t the ones who brought this up.

But when, over luncheon last week, some community leaders tossed around the idea of imposing a juvenile curfew on Bainbridge Island, we thought it was worth at least some discussion. (And it made for a long lunch.)

The conversation was of course precipitated by recent early-hours automobile accidents that claimed the lives of several island young people. In one, no fewer than eight teens ages 14-17 were in a vehicle that crashed on Tolo Road at 2 a.m.; the incident has raised some uncomfortable questions at the intersection of youth impulsiveness and overriding parental responsibility. The luncheon exchange reflected the natural community impulse to do something to head off such calamities in the future, whatever that something might happen to be.

For our part, we posited that to find political traction, a curfew would need the support of a consortium of community groups – service clubs, health and human service organizations, youth advocates, schools. Such restrictions would have to be handed up, not handed down. Moreover, unlike curfews in other cities, the issue would need to be cast not under the rubric of crime prevention, but rather public health and safety. If a pattern of reckless juvenile use of vehicles and alcohol is emerging – and recent police statistics on the latter are instructive – then the welfare of all motorists using our roadways is at issue.

Its legislative prospects aside, the notion of a curfew also should be considered in a legal light. The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, which does policy studies for municipal governments including our own, reports that the courts have generally frowned upon curfews. The town of Sumner’s curfew was struck down just last year as unconstitutionally vague; in 1997, the State Court of Appeals snuffed the city of Bellingham’s curfew, finding that it “infringes on minors’ fundamental freedom of movement and expression...”

But curfews have survived judicial review elsewhere. The MSRC notes that a federal appeals court upheld a Dallas, Texas curfew, “rejecting a challenge based upon grounds of equal protection and a parent’s right to rear children without undue governmental interference.” Properly crafted, a local ordinance could pass judicial muster.

Meanwhile, some legalists maintain that curfews “demonize” youth for political expedience, and unfairly punish kids who work late hours or have other legitimate reasons to be out with the owls. And as to serious miscreance, a position paper published by the American Bar Association argues that a mere misdemeanor curfew violation is “hardly a deterrent for youths willing to risk the far more onerous penalties that attach to the type of crimes such curfews seek to prevent... By their design, curfews will have the greatest impact on the conduct of those youth with whom we are least concerned.”

We’re not prepared to advocate a curfew at this time, although others may step up to do so. And any discussion that de-legitimizes kids running around at all hours seems useful.

Because no one yet has come up with a good explanation for why teens are out driving island roads at 2 a.m., beyond “they’re just being teens”; if thinking that’s a poor answer makes us fuddy-duddies, hand us our canes.

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