Teenagers do not have the right to wander the streets late at night, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday in upholding the District's youth curfew law, a high-profile effort to cut crime by keeping most teenagers indoors after hours.
The 1995 law governing District children younger than 17 does not violate their rights, nor does it interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in declaring the law constitutional.
A clear majority of the 11-judge court said the D.C. law gives parents "almost total discretion" over their children's late-night activities and, in fact, helps parents control their children.
The appeals court ordered the lifting of an injunction that has prevented D.C. police from enforcing the law since October 1996. A period of legal maneuvering and logistical preparations remains before the curfew can be reinstated.
Critics of the law, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, said they oppose the ruling but have not decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear a similar case in March.
"I disagree because I think there is a right of free movement," said lawyer Robert S. Plotkin, who argued the case against the law. "We're also concerned that the court made short shrift of the role of the parents and the parents' rights."
Added Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the local ACLU office, "I'll try to think of a good synonym for `disappointed.' "
District authorities welcomed the court's ruling, which overturned two earlier decisions in the case. U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis described the curfew as an "effective device," given the city's "alarmingly high juvenile violent crime arrest and death rates."
D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) said he was "delighted" with the ruling. The law will reduce youth violence and gang activity, said Brazil, who credited the court with understanding the "commitment to protecting the children of the District."
The 1995 law was enacted with great fanfare by a unanimous council and signed into law by then-Mayor Marion Barry. Apart from a series of exceptions, no one younger than 17 can be in a public place without supervision after 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday or after midnight Friday and Saturday. The curfew ends each day at 6 a.m.
Juveniles who violate the curfew may be ordered to do 25 hours of community service. Parents and guardians can be punished with fines as high as $500 for allowing youths to violate the curfew. The council inserted eight exceptions, including emergencies, errands requested by a parent or guardian, certain kinds of employment and travel to and from work.
Youths would not be violating the curfew if they were standing on the sidewalk beside their homes or the next-door neighbors' -- provided the neighbors have not complained. Also permitted are activities sponsored by the District or a civic organization that takes responsibility for the child.
Although curfews for juveniles are in place in communities throughout the country, the Supreme Court has never thoroughly explored the issue. The court allowed to stand a lower-court ruling upholding a Charlottesville law that is virtually identical to the District's measure.
Also, because of the law's specifics, District attorneys said they are not worried about the Supreme Court's decision this month to strike down a Chicago anti-loitering law that targeted gang violence. The court decided the law, which led to the arrest of 42,000 people, was unclear in defining criminal behavior.
"The Chicago law is not as carefully and tightly written as this law is," said Walter A. Smith Jr., special deputy corporation counsel. "That law gives too much discretion to police. Our law doesn't suffer from those problems."
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan declared the D.C. law unconstitutional in 1996, concluding it violated the rights of law-abiding children and infringed on their parents' rights to decide how best to raise them. A U.S. Circuit Court panel agreed 2 to 1 last year.
After the city appealed, nine of 11 judges concluded the law was constitutional, although several dissented from parts of the majority opinion.
Juveniles have rights, the court determined, but those rights are not the same as the rights of adults. Teenagers and younger children are likely to be more vulnerable than adults. They are also "less able to make mature decisions in the face of peer pressure and are more in need of parental supervision during curfew hours," wrote Judge Lawrence H. Silberman.
Parents have a right and a responsibility to make good decisions about their children, the court declared. It ruled that the law grants "almost total discretion" to the parents, not precluding them "from allowing their children to walk the dog or go to the store."
But that right, the court said, does not allow parents to "unilaterally determine when and if children will be on the streets -- certainly at night." Rather, the government can trump the parents with rules designed to guard the welfare of children.
Chief Judge Harry T. Edwards disagreed with that section of the ruling, calling it "much too narrow," although he agreed that the law is constitutional.
He wrote that parental rights extend beyond the home to the streets but are taken into account in the D.C. law.
"No responsible parent would willingly send a child into danger," Edwards wrote. "A law designed to curb the possibility of danger, while at the same time affording parents wide freedom to direct their children's activities, is one that passes constitutional muster."