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Manassas Discards Youth Curfew

Ambiguous Law Won't Hold Up, City Report Says

By Michele Clock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page B05

Manassas has abandoned its long-standing 10 p.m. juvenile curfew after a report found it vague, unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Noting that other measures, including a statewide juvenile driving curfew, already are in place, City Council members directed city attorneys Monday to repeal the curfew, which is more than 25 years old.

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The Police Department and city attorneys compiled the report after reviewing the curfew's effectiveness and constitutionality amid growing concern about gangs.

Police Chief John J. Skinner said there is no clear evidence that a city curfew would help fight a recent increase in gang violence in Northern Virginia. Many of those arrested on gang-related charges are 18 or older, he said.

Prince William, Leesburg and Manassas Park now are the only jurisdictions in Northern Virginia with curfews for those under age 18.

Virginia has a juvenile driving curfew that bans minors from the roads between midnight and 4 a.m. except during emergencies, when traveling to and from work or school activities or when with a parent or guardian.

The city's curfew made it illegal for those under 18 to "loiter, loaf, idle, stand around . . . tarry upon . . . frequent or be" in public between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., with a few exceptions.

But such terms as "wander, idle, stroll or play" would not survive rigorous First Amendment challenges because of their ambiguity, according to the report. Across the country, curfews have been ruled unconstitutional for that reason, the report said.

Lt. Bill Goodman, spokesman for Manassas City Police, said that curfew violators rarely are escorted home and that when they are, it's often because of some other criminal activity was suspected. The punishment for violating the curfew is a fine of as much as $500, he said.

Before imposing a curfew, the government must make a case that there is a compelling need and interest served by it, Skinner said. "All I'm saying is, that need has not been met," he said.

The report said the curfew has been obsolete for years. Manassas police stopped enforcing it in favor of other, more specific -- and effective -- measures such as the driving curfew created in 2001.

About that time, the Manassas Police Department began patrolling private land -- with owners' permission -- including subdivisions and shopping centers, to reduce loitering and trespassing.

Manassas and Prince William County police also have stepped up juvenile probation curfew checks.

"With those things, the police feel that they have the tools they need without a curfew," said City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes.

Typically, curfews are adopted in communities in which there are significant levels of juvenile crime and violence, the report said.

The number of juvenile arrests dropped from nearly 300 in 2000 to 76 in 2003, officials said. Last year, juvenile arrests made up 2.9 percent of all arrests.

Curfews are not an uncommon remedy, but usually don't last long, said John Moore, director of the Tallahassee-based National Youth Gang Center.

"It requires extra resources," Moore said. "And if you look at what's happened, we have a steady stream of juveniles who have been cited, and what good is it doing?"

But Moore said that curfews make people feel more secure. "I would add that's not altogether a bad thing," he said.

If the city's juvenile crime increased, the council could bring back the curfew, said council member Jackson H. Miller (R), a former Prince William police officer.

Skinner agreed. "If I sense or see a change in our juvenile crime trend toward youth violence, I will not hesitate to immediately recommend to City Council that they impose a curfew on minors."


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