D.C. police will begin enforcing the city's juvenile curfew law on Sept. 7--the day after Labor Day--after launching an effort to educate the public and to train officers about its strict provisions, officials said yesterday.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey have decided to delay enforcement of the law until after the school year begins, even though recent court orders give them discretion to act immediately. The curfew prohibits youths 16 and younger from being in public places from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Sundays through Thursdays and from midnight to 6 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
The law, enacted with much fanfare in the summer of 1995, was in effect only 15 months before it was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge. That ruling was reversed in June by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and an injunction barring enforcement of the curfew was lifted last week.
Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said yesterday the D.C. government is printing brochures about the law and plans to distribute them as part of a public awareness effort that coincides with school registration. Police officers also will be trained within the next few weeks, he said.
When the law first was introduced, officers from the department's youth division took youths who were picked up after hours to their homes or special detention centers. This time, Gainer said, the neighborhood patrol officers who pick up the youths will be expected to contact parents or other family members. If that fails, the youths will remain overnight in police district facilities. The goal is to address any underlying problems, he said.
"Locking people up is not the answer," Gainer said. "We want to figure out why they're doing what they're doing. We want to get more involved and learn what we as a government can do to make things right for the family."
Juveniles who violate the curfew can be ordered to do 25 hours of community service. But the law is more directed toward reining them in through parents and guardians, who can be punished with fines up to $500 and ordered to perform community service or undergo counseling. The law has several exceptions, including emergencies, errands requested by a parent or guardian, travel to and from work, and attendance at chaperoned school events.
The law, passed unanimously by the D.C. Council and highly touted by then-Mayor Marion Barry, was enforced only sporadically before it was challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU contended that the restrictions unfairly targeted minors and violated their rights of equal protection and due process under the law. The ACLU's suit maintained that the D.C. curfew took away freedom of movement and questioned its safety benefits.
The ACLU prevailed when U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan struck down the law in the fall of 1996. The District appealed Sullivan's ruling, only to lose again in a 2 to 1 opinion issued by the D.C. Circuit last year. But then the full appellate court agreed to review the matter, and it issued the ruling in June that upheld the law. The ACLU sought to delay enforcement but recently was turned down, clearing the way for the curfew finally to resume effect.
Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the local ACLU office, said lawyers have not decided whether to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. He said he believed officials were acting appropriately in giving themselves time to make the public and police aware of the law before enforcing it.
"They could begin enforcing it tomorrow," Spitzer said. "I think it's wise of them that they're not."