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Legal Challenges to Juvenile Curfew Laws

Juvenile curfew laws are laws passed at the state or local level that prohibit people of a certain age (usually under 18) from being in public or at public businesses between certain hours, typically at night. Communities justify these laws as combating juvenile crime and preserving the social order. There have, however, been some legal challenges to juvenile curfew laws.

Penalties for curfew violations vary, but tend to amount to a fine, community service, driver's license restrictions, and jail or juvenile detention. Penalties may be enforced against the parents as well as the juvenile. Exceptions permitting juveniles to engage in adult-supervised activities, school, religious events, or work are common. Violations arising due to an emergency are not typically penalized.

Enforcement Discretion

Many jurisdictions have authorized law enforcement to exercise a considerable amount of discretion in the enforcement and punishment of juvenile curfew violations. Instead of arresting or citing violators, the police may issue a warning, recommend counseling, inform the parents, or escort the juvenile home. On the other hand, some jurisdictions take curfew laws very seriously and police may perform "curfew sweeps" where teams of officers canvass an area and arrest entire groups of violators.

In recent years, there have been various challenges to juvenile curfew laws on the grounds that the laws violate the First Amendment and other guarantees provided under U.S. and state constitutions. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil rights groups have played an active role in these challenges -- cases that have hinged on both the wording of juvenile curfew statutes, and the manner in which the curfew statutes have been enforced by law enforcement officers.

Challenges to Juvenile Curfew Laws: Overview

For example, in recent years, the juvenile curfew laws in a number of U.S. cities have been challenged -- and in some instances, overturned by courts -- based on the following legal arguments:

  • Under a juvenile curfew law's "exceptions," (which identify the circumstances under which a minor would not be subject to the curfew law), it is too difficult to tell whether certain activities are permitted or prohibited. As a matter of due process, citizens are entitled to know what specific laws mean and, therefore, how they can obey or violate such laws. Simply put, some courts have found curfew laws are too broad and vague to uphold.
  • Courts generally honor a parent's right to direct the upbringing of their children. A juvenile curfew law that does not provide a "parental permission" exception has been overturned as an unwarranted government interference with parents' rights to control the upbringing of their children. Some courts have even overturned juvenile curfew laws despite the parental permission exceptions.
  • A juvenile curfew is unconstitutional in its enforcement because of its disproportionate impact on minority communities. (No case has yet been overturned because of this argument as of the time of this writing, but the race argument persists in relation to the use of curfew laws.)
  • A juvenile curfew law amounts to a restriction against intrastate travel (or "free movement"). Courts are split on whether such a right exists, however, and whether it applies to minors.
  • A juvenile curfew law violates a person's right to privacy.

Attempts have been made to overturn curfew laws on a constitutional basis. Some have successfully argued (in Iowa and Indiana) that curfew laws violated their First Amendment rights.

Other opponents have characterized curfew laws as violating the constitutional right to freedom of assembly. In some cases, courts have favored upholding of curfew laws over the right to assembly when doing so reasonably protects the health, safety, and welfare of the community.

Because juvenile curfew laws single out the young, they've been attacked as age-discriminatory. In at least one case, plaintiffs used The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to argue against juvenile curfews.

More Questions About Challenges to Juvenile Curfew Laws? Ask an Attorney

If you or your child have been cited or arrested for a juvenile curfew law violation, seek legal help. Curfew laws can seem at the very least unclear. At their worst, they can be unlawful.

Contact a skilled criminal defense lawyer in your area today to learn more about your rights and the potential outcome of the curfew charge you are facing. You deserve to understand what is going on in order to best defend your rights and the rights of your child.

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