The Dumfries Town Council may call an emergency meeting this month to vote on a curfew ordinance designed to curb a recent wave of adolescent offenses in the town.
Under the proposed ordinance, police officers could detain juveniles who do not respond to a warning to go home. Court action could result in a fine of up to $300 or up to 30 days in jail.
About 1 1/2 years ago, residents of the Williamstown subdivision in Dumfries began complaining to the Town Council about young people between pre-adolescence and age 18 "hanging around" the subdivision, sitting on the Williamstown sign, shouting and throwing beer cans and bottles as late as 1 a.m. Although the town's police and county police were called, residents said, the young people would simply move on temporarily and return, sometimes the same night.
Although the Williamstown Homeowners Association has erected wrought iron rods above the sign to prevent the teen-agers from perching there, the unwelcome activity has simply moved to the subdivision's main street corner and to several convenience stores in the area, residents say.
The council has been considering a curfew for several months but has hesitated because, according to town attorney Charles Sievers, such ordinances are difficult to enforce. Part of the problem, officials say, has been in the interpretation of a new state law about detaining juveniles. Town and county police say that court administrators usually rule that juveniles may be arrested and detained only for serious crimes that would be a felony for an adult, such as burglary, theft or assault.
State Del. Floyd Bagley (D-Dumfries) agreed that court administrators sometimes misinterpret the law passed by the 1985 General Assembly. It was not the legislature's intent, he said, to emasculate the police force.
The thrust of the legislation was to keep juveniles out of adult jails. "If it's being interpreted to mean that they can't be detained at all," Bagley said, "maybe we need to change the law."
Bagley will ask the state attorney general for an opinion, he said, but a curfew ordinance is enforceable "until town officials are told it's not." He added, "I don't think they'd be passing something that's unconstitutional."
The Williamstown Homeowners Association petitioned the council for a curfew law after one resident's window was broken by a thrown beer bottle. The incident happened, Judy McDonough said, because she reported a shoplifting incident by a teen-ager to a convenience store employe.
"When the manager thanked me for reporting what I saw," said McDonough, "a friend of the kid who did the shoplifting heard him." When McDonough, a Williamstown resident and the mother of five children, left the store, she said, several dozen adolescents started to throw trash at her and some threatened to kill her. That evening, a beer bottle thrown through her window hit her daughter's foot and slashed it open, and she had to go to a hospital emergency room for stitches.
Although this month's petition for a curfew was the second request by the group in two years, the council was unsure whether to vote on the issue or table it for further study at its recent meeting, according to Vice Mayor Marjorie Davis.
When homeowners association President Jeff Milton, angered at a possible delay, told the council, "We voted you into office, we can vote you out," several members said they were swayed by what they interpreted as a threat. The issue was tabled until the Oct. 1 meeting.
Council member Clyde Washington said, "I've been very relaxed about passing it [the curfew ordinance] but Milton's insult really made me decide to table it." Several other members told him later that Milton's remark had the same effect on them, he said. The vote to table was 4 to 2.
However, McDonough has asked the board for an emergency session to deal with the issue and several board members, including Washington, said they have already told Mayor Olney Brawner they would be willing to call such a meeting.
"Something has to be done for our residents to be protected," Washington said. "It was disappointing to me not to get something done this month."
Town officials have consulted with Manassas officials about that city's curfew ordinance, which, according to Manassas Police Chief Sam Ellis, seldom needs enforcing. "Dumfries has a problem we don't have," he said. "When we tell juveniles to move on, they comply 99 percent of the time. In fact, there are a lot of adults that I'd like to send home to their children at 10 p.m." Ellis noted that the lack of a curfew law may be what causes Dumfries youth to ignore warnings by police.
According to Milton, the Dumfries police force -- six full-time officers and one part-time officer -- is is too small to enforce any law or ordinance because of the growth the town is experiencing. The number of town houses in Williamstown, 350, soon will be doubled, according to Brawner.
The town has 3,422 residents, up 333 since the 1980 census. Some residents told the council they would be willing to pay twice as much property tax if the council would promise that the money would go toward hiring more police, according to Davis. Dumfries charges its residents $8 for property tax on cars, while the county charges $20.
The town instituted a volunteer police force last year under which six men have been trained and are patroling the streets part time. They are paid $1 a year for their Sheriffs Association Insurance, Police Chief H.C. Anderson said. Several more are now in training, he said.