ourt Blocks Enforcement of West New York Curfew

April 19, 1999 12:00 am

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Monday, April 19, 1999

WEST NEW YORK, NJ — Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, a Superior Court judge today blocked West New York from enforcing its juvenile curfew until a final determination is made about the law’s constitutionality.

Chancery Division Judge Martin L. Greenberg, in Hudson County, issued the preliminary injunction in a suit brought by the ACLU of New Jersey on behalf of two families whose children had been arrested under the curfew. Finding that the families were likely to prevail on their claim that the curfew was unconstitutional, the court told West New York that it must immediately stop enforcing the ordinance and prosecuting curfew violators.

The judge said that it was unlikely that West New York would be able to show that “house confinement of all minors under age 18” was a permissible restriction on minors’ constitutional rights.

The township’s curfew, enacted in 1993, prohibits anyone under age 18 from being in a public place between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

According to the township’s attorney, the ordinance provides exceptions for juveniles traveling to or from work, engaged in a medical emergency, or traveling to or from events sponsored by community or religious organizations. Curfew violators and their parents are subject to fines of up to $1,000, and up to 90 days community service.

But the teenagers involved in the ACLU lawsuit have been arrested for curfew violations while returning home from such activities as delivering cake to a grandparent, eating in a restaurant with an adult friend, walking home from work at McDonald’s, and walking home with friends from a movie.

“Placing everyone in West New York under house arrest from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. would certainly reduce crime, but how many people would be willing to pay that price?”said David M. Kohane, an attorney in the Hackensack law firm of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard who is handling the case for the ACLU.

“It makes no sense to punish these teenagers, and thousands of other good kids like them, for problems they haven’t caused,” he added.

Courts around the country have reached differing conclusions regarding the constitutionality of juvenile curfews, and the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on their legality. Juvenile curfews have been found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Courts of Washington, Iowa, and Hawaii, and have recently been struck down by federal courts in Washington, D.C., and San Diego, California. However courts have upheld curfews in Dallas, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia.

Studies have repeatedly shown that curfews are an ineffective crime-fighting tool, and many large cities have either scrapped or refused to adopt curfew laws. A recent comprehensive study of curfew enforcement in California by the Justice Policy Institute found that curfew enforcement had no discernible effect on juvenile crime, and in many jurisdictions, juvenile crime actually increased. In addition, federal crime statistics show that the majority of juvenile crimes occur during non-curfew hours, peaking between 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

“The police already have the ability to arrest juvenile criminals; the curfew adds nothing more than the obligation to arrest the innocent as well,” said David Rocah, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey. “The proper response to juvenile crime is to arrest the criminals, not to place thousands of law-abiding young people under house arrest.”

The ACLU lawsuit — Betancourt v. Township of West New York, docket number C-6-99 — was filed in the New Jersey Superior Court, Chancery Division, Hudson County, on January 19, 1999.

The Justice Policy Institute’s study on the efficacy of curfew laws can be accessed online at http://www.cjcj.org/jpi/curfew.html.

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