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San Diego Teen Curfew Found Unconstitutional

June 10, 1997|STEPHANIE SIMON and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A tough San Diego curfew law banning youths from hanging out in public after 10 p.m. is unconstitutional because it's too broad, too vague and interferes with parents' rights to raise their children as they choose, an appeals court ruled Monday.

While all 31 Orange County cities have curfew ordinances of some sort, mostly affecting teens under 18, it was not clear Monday whether the ruling will affect them. Some officials, however, said they are confident that their curfew laws are sufficiently explicit to withstand the legal test.

"Theirs may be vague," Santa Ana Police Sgt. Bob Clark said. "Ours may not be."

San Diego officials--like their counterparts around the state--have credited strict curfew laws with cutting juvenile crime and are starting to rack up statistics that they say support those claims.

Cities across Southern California had pleaded with the court to uphold San Diego's curfew, among them Laguna Beach, Fullerton, Irvine, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Malibu, Oceanside, Oxnard, Palm Springs, Riverside and San Bernardino.

Jan Scanlan, a deputy city attorney for Bakersfield who organized a coalition of 114 cities to support San Diego's law, said the decision could gut the ordinances in dozens of cities that cribbed from that law.

"People tend to mimic each others' ordinances--we don't want to reinvent the wheel, so if yours works, we say, 'Let's copy yours,' " Scanlan said.

Though Scanlan predicted that the court's decision would have a broad impact, she did not know which cities might be affected. And officials in several Southland cities insisted that they had inserted unique language into their curfews to protect them from legal challenge.

"We were not that vague," Laguna Beach Police Chief Jim Spreine said of his city's 10 p.m. curfew, enacted in 1994.

For example, he said, minors are exempt from the ordinance if they are attending organized activities such as school meetings, classes, sporting events, dances, concerts, theatrical performances or religious meetings, Spreine said.

San Diego's curfew law is considered one of the toughest in the nation.

No one under 18 is allowed to "loiter, idle, wander, stroll or play" in public after 10 p.m. on any night of the week unless supervised by an adult. The exceptions are for juveniles on their way to work or to a school-sponsored activity, or on an emergency errand for their parents.

Thousands of violators have been arrested, taken to the police station, fingerprinted and photographed. They face fines, community service and--if they are repeat offenders--behavior counseling. Dozens of parents have been hauled into court as well.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the San Diego law for three reasons.

First, the judges deemed the language too vague. Youths scanning the list of prohibited activities could not be expected to understand exactly what kind of behavior was illegal, the court ruled. And police had too much discretion in deciding how to enforce the law.

Second, the court found that the curfew unfairly blocked teens from exercising their right to free speech. They could not, for example, stay out late to attend a political rally, or to pray at midnight Mass. Writing for the court, Judge Charles Wiggins noted that "the ordinance restricted minors' ability to engage in many 1st Amendment activities during curfew hours."

Finally, the court ruled that the curfew burdened parents as well as minors by usurping their rights as guardians.

"The ordinance was an exercise in sweeping state control irrespective of parents' wishes," Wiggins wrote. "Without proper justification, it violated the fundamental right to rear children without undue interference."

The judges made clear that less restrictive curfews are acceptable. And several Southern California cities have been careful to avoid the kind of blanket restrictions that drew the court's censure in the San Diego case.

Even the attorney who challenged the San Diego law said other cities' curfews could well survive the ruling.

"This opinion deals with the language of this curfew specifically," said John Clarke, a San Diego lawyer who took the case for free for the American Civil Liberties Union. "I don't think the court made any broad pronouncements."

But Chapin, the deputy city attorney, said he believed such tough language was vital to keep the curfew law from becoming a farce.

If Monday's ruling forces cities to let juveniles roam the streets for any kind of activity protected under the 1st Amendment--including hanging out with buddies--curfew laws would have "no teeth at all," he said.

"The 1st Amendment exception is going a step too far," Chapin said. "You can immediately see how it can be construed: any time you get together with your friends--or with your gang--you could argue that your freedom of association must be protected."

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