Supreme Court Turns Down Challenge to a Virginia Teen Curfew Ordinance

March 22, 1999 12:00 am

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March 22, 1999

RICHMOND, VA–The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will not hear arguments in the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal challenge to a curfew ordinance in the town of Charlottesville.

The decision allows Charlottesville’s curfew to remain on the books and makes it clear that similar curfews in Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and the rest of Virginia are constitutional.

It does not, however, set a national standard for what defines a constitutionally permissible curfew, the ACLU said.

The Charlottesville curfew prohibits persons under 17 years of age from staying out past midnight Sunday through Thursday, or past 1:00 a.m. on weekends, but has exceptions for children accompanied by adults, attending school, civic or religious functions, returning from work or exercising their First Amendment rights. It is similar to many other curfew ordinances adopted in recent years by numerous towns and cities in Virginia and across the nation.

In March 1997, after a large and vocal group of parents and their teenage children attempted unsuccessfully to stop the adoption of the ordinance, the ACLU of Virginia filed suit, arguing that the curfew violated the teens’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Five juveniles, one 18-year-old who feared harassment by police, and two parents served as plaintiffs. Both the Federal District Court in Charlottesville and later the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance was constitutionally permissible.

“We are enormously disappointed in the decision, but not terribly surprised,” said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “This is not the first time the Supreme Court has refused to hear a curfew case. In the meantime, the Fourth Circuit has done its usual damage, undermining individual rights while helping the heavy hand of government.”

“Curfews are political, not practical,” added Willis. “They sound as if they would be effective, and they sell well to the public, but in the end they take another notch out of our freedom to associate. And because they only address the period when less than five percent of all teen offenses occur, they will never reduce teen crime in a meaningful way.”

“Our best hope might be that curfews in the 1990s suffer the same fate as the curfews of the 1950s,” he said. “The explosion of curfews in the mid-fifties emerged in reaction to the growing concern over ‘juvenile delinquency.’ When towns discovered that curfews had absolutely no effect on the rate of teen crimes but diverted police from more important work, they stopped using them.”

Deborah Wyatt of Wyatt & Carter in Charlottesville serves as ACLU cooperating attorney on the case.

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