Darkness Falls on a City’s Curfew

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If history is our guide, the recent elimination of Rochester’s curfew law by New York’s highest court will not be celebrated by curfew foes for long. Few decisions against curfews by courts have dissuaded or prevented jurisdictions from enacting them.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled last month in Anonymous v. City of Rochester that the city’s three-year-old ordinance “fails to offer parents enough flexibility or autonomy in supervising their children.”

The curfew, which prohibited anyone under 16 from being out without a parent between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., was established in 2006 after the murder of three youths in the city. Under the curfew, minors could be out during curfew hours only if accompanied by a parent or guardian, or if they could prove they were traveling to or from a job, school or religious event, recreational activity or a demonstration.

Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy (D), who served as the city’s police chief from 1998 to 2005, was not pleased with the ruling, but does not intend to appeal it. “The city will honor the court’s wishes,” Duffy said in a statement.

Historically, appeals have not been necessary to overcome such decisions. Courts have declared curfews unconstitutional in Miami, Seattle, San Diego and Indianapolis. Seattle, which had its curfew tossed out in 1973, hasn’t had one since. The other three fashioned new rules, taking into consideration court rulings, and have curfews in effect now. Two smaller communities that have had curfews thrown out are Henderson, Ky., and Vernon, Conn. Vernon did not attempt to reinstitute a curfew, but Henderson succeeded in doing so.

Indeed, Duffy told a local news station that “we will look for a way that perhaps we can come back with a new model that would be effective that would be legally supported and would withstand litigation which we can expect in the future.”

One aspect of the court majority’s opinion may give Rochester politicians a tough time if they want to go back to the curfew drawing board. The judges said they believed the city lacked compelling evidence that the curfew could achieve its objectives: to lower juvenile crime and prevent children from being victims of crime.

The city “must show a substantial nexus between the burdens imposed by this curfew and the goals of protecting minors and preventing juvenile crime,” Judge Theodore Jones wrote in the majority opinion. “The crime statistics produced by defendants do not support the objectives” of the curfew.

For a new curfew to pass muster, the city would have to demonstrate a need for it. Otherwise, any new law would be likely to meet a similar fate at the hands of the same court.

Although various curfew laws across the country have been challenged with mixed results, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to accept a case regarding curfew laws. In 1998, the court declined to hear an appeal of a federal curfew case that originated in Virginia.