Curfew laws prohibit or limit your right to be out in public at certain times. They are intended to maintain a certain level of order and safety in public spaces.
Governments have used curfew laws throughout history for a variety of reasons. The word "curfew" originated from France, where the term meant "cover fire." Early references date to a law by William the Conqueror in England in the 11th century. The purpose of curfew was to prevent the spread of fire within wooden structures by extinguishing lights and fire in the evening.
Most curfew laws in the United States apply only to juveniles or those under 18 years old. Other curfew rules may be in place temporarily in response to a natural disaster or civil disturbance. These curfews often apply to all people in a city or local area.
This Curfew Laws subsection includes articles on juvenile curfew laws, business curfew laws, and emergency curfew laws. Articles also discuss legal challenges to curfew violation charges and provide a list of curfew laws in the 25 most populous U.S. cities.
Purpose of Curfew Laws
Historically, most curfew laws have sought to decrease activity in public during evening hours. A reason may be so the government or military can maintain order. It may be to prevent the spread of disease (as in the COVID-19 pandemic). At times of unrest, it may be to prevent crime. Curfews generate controversy, given past use by the government to suppress the activities of certain groups. Establishing curfews commonly occurs in situations of martial law - along with the suspension of other civil rights.
Juvenile Curfew Laws and Exceptions
Juvenile curfew laws represent the most common local curfew today. Most major cities have a curfew ordinance requiring juveniles (children under 18) to be indoors (and not on public roads or in public places) after a certain hour. For example, the curfew in Dayton, Ohio, runs from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. every day and applies to all minors under 18. Violation of the curfew law is a minor misdemeanor.
In Richmond, Virginia, the curfew law defines a minor as a person under 18 years old. Curfew hours are from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. each day. The curfew prohibits a minor from being in any public place or on the premises of any private business establishment during curfew hours. It prohibits any parent, guardian, or private business owner or manager from knowingly permitting a child to break curfew. The law's exceptions include a minor engaged in interstate travel beginning or ending in the city. Persons exercising First Amendment rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or freedom of assembly are also exempt. In Richmond, each day of a violation can result in a new offense. The penalties include a $500 fine and 20 hours of community service.
The curfew ordinance in New Orleans does not provide for legal punishment of the minor breaking curfew. Instead, the focus is on the adult custodian of the minor. The misdemeanor offense provides for a fine of $500 and up to 60 hours of community service. The city council raised the curfew age in 2021 from minors under 17 to minors under 18. The police department has discretion in juvenile interaction during curfew. It can direct the juvenile to head home without detour immediately. It can also detain the juvenile or (for daytime violations) take them to a shelter care facility operated by local schools.
Some states provide for a statewide juvenile curfew. For example, in Florida, the curfew applies to anyone under 18 years old. Curfew hours are as follows:
- Sunday to Thursday, 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.
- Friday and Saturday and the eve of a legal holiday, 12:01 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.
- School days, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (for those suspended or expelled from school)
Generally, a juvenile curfew will prohibit a minor from remaining in:
- Any public space, such as streets, parks, highways, and schools
- Private establishments open to the public, such as movie theaters, restaurants, and bowling alleys
Juveniles accompanied by a parent or guardian may lawfully be out after curfew. In most situations, the law provides an exception (or affirmative defense) if the minor is:
- With a parent, legal guardian, or another authorized adult
- At work or in the process of going to work or coming home from work
- Involved in an emergency situation
- Going to, attending, or coming home from a supervised school, church, government, or recreational activity
- In front of their own residence
- On an errand authorized by the parent or legal guardian
- Exercising a constitutional right (e.g., freedom of speech or lawful assembly)
Violating curfew will normally be a misdemeanor offense. Local law enforcement and juvenile courts may provide diversion programs for first-time offenders. Conviction can also lead to jail time, fines, and court costs. Courts may permit community service hours in lieu of jail or fines.
In some jurisdictions, a "school hours" curfew may also exist to prevent teens from loitering while skipping school. These laws seek to discourage truancy.
In many jurisdictions, an unauthorized adult found with a minor during curfew hours may also face misdemeanor charges. This may be called an adult curfew violation or contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Legal Challenges to Juvenile Curfew Laws
Curfew ordinances have been around for well over a century. One of the first enactments of juvenile curfew laws took place in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1880. In the 1880s, President Harrison promoted the use of curfews to protect American children from the "vices of the street." For decades, they have been in effect in many municipalities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and San Francisco.
Despite their popularity, academic studies conclude that there is little evidence that juvenile curfews effectively reduce juvenile crime. Some research demonstrates the positive impact of curfews in decreasing the number of motor vehicle accidents involving young people. Keeping teen drivers off the roads at night may aid public safety to a greater extent.
Some argue that juvenile curfew laws discriminate against minors based on their age. They also question laws that permit police officers to stop and frisk juveniles who are not otherwise violating any law. They raise concerns that "curfew sweeps" by law enforcement officers may tend to target teens of minority groups.
Challenges have been mounted to some curfew laws on the basis that they violate juveniles' First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. Few courts have found juvenile curfews to be unconstitutional. The circuit courts of appeals have highlighted key areas of concern when reviewing challenges to juvenile curfew laws.
In upholding a nighttime juvenile curfew law in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that minor children have constitutional rights that deserve protection. Yet, the court also found that minors' liberty rights have limitations. In evaluating the curfew law in question, the court found that the law was substantially related to important government interests. The city passed the curfew law to help reduce juvenile violence and crime and protect juveniles from unlawful drug activities and adult criminal conduct. The city also stated that it drafted the law to strengthen parental responsibility towards their children. The law provided for several of the exceptions discussed above, including the exercise of First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly.
To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in directly on constitutional challenges to juvenile curfew laws.
Business Curfew Laws
Most businesses set their hours of service in response to customer demand. For example, a retail clothing store may be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. These times correspond with the normal hours that customers visit the store.
In some cities, business curfew laws restrict the operating hours of certain public establishments, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and liquor stores. A business curfew may also apply in certain "high crime" areas that may differ from regular business hours in the rest of the city. Typically, business curfews do not apply to late-night pharmacies and bars but do apply to restaurants, liquor stores, and other establishments where people may gather or loiter.
Emergency Curfew Laws
Emergency curfews are usually temporary orders. These are put in place by federal, state, or local governments in response to a particular crisis, like a natural disaster or ongoing civil disturbance. Emergency curfew laws can be placed on minors and adults alike.
For example, during a nationwide pandemic like COVID-19, local governments might place reasonable curfew laws in place to protect public health. The spread of an airborne illness in a large city arguably provides a compelling reason for government intervention. Emergency curfews based on health concerns or natural disasters will often last only for a few days or weeks until the threat to public health or safety has ended. But when a government rule may have a negative impact on the exercise of fundamental rights, courts may closely scrutinize the government's action.
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer, several protests occurred throughout the country against police brutality. Citizens have the right to protest peacefully and seek policy or legal changes from the government under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Yet, when a city faces protests by opposing groups or individuals in a protest group break the law, it has a duty to maintain order for public safety. After incidents of property damage and violence at several protests, many cities passed emergency curfew laws to keep citizens off the streets for certain hours. Upon challenge, a court will view such curfew laws based on how reasonably they were tailored to address the real crisis at hand.
Have More Questions About Curfew Laws? Talk With an Attorney
Most curfew laws aim to keep young people off the streets at hours when they may get into trouble. Yet, they can vary greatly between communities. Exceptions and enforcement may also differ. Talking with a local criminal defense lawyer can help you understand the curfew laws in your area. If you or your child gets charged with a violation related to curfew, you may need legal advice to evaluate your options. Consider talking with a criminal defense attorney and get answers to your questions today.