What Are Curfew Laws?

Penalties for curfew violations vary from one jurisdiction to another. Criminal charges for violating a curfew can mean penalties ranging from community service to fines. But in some circumstances, violating a curfew ordinance can lead to time in a detention center. Other jurisdictions consider curfew violation a misdemeanor, particularly for repeat offenders.

For minors under 18 years old, being out in a public place after curfew hours — without any valid reason — often leads to consequences. The rules and penalties surrounding curfew violations depend on state and local laws. But in most instances, young people loitering after curfew hours may be asked to do community service.

This article aims to shed light on the rules and regulations surrounding curfew laws.

What Are Curfew Laws?

Mandatory curfews are laws that ban or limit your right to be out in public at certain times. In some cases, these laws require businesses to close their doors during certain hours. Others limit when juveniles can go to the mall or be in public without adult supervision.

A mandatory curfew mainly affects public activities. In some circumstances, though, it could impact your use of private property. This applies in particular to properties used for business or involving activities in which the general public participates.

The application and interpretation of these laws often involve legal debates. The justice system assesses the constitutionality of curfew ordinances. This is important because curfews have often been a point of debate when discussing First Amendment rights. Some people cite curfews' interference with the constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and free speech.

Meanwhile, authorities justify curfew enforcement by citing public safety and saying such restrictions deter criminal activities.

Who Decides Curfew Laws?

State and local governments — and, in some cases, law enforcement officers — have the power to set curfews. This means state laws or local ordinances can address rules regarding the time frames during which people can loiter outdoors.

During a public health crisis and other emergencies, local police officers and federal governments alike may play a significant role in ensuring public health and safety. The division of powers is often guided by the U.S. Constitution and state laws.

What Kinds of Curfew Laws Are There?

The three main types of curfew laws:

This article discusses, in more detail, the different types of curfews.

Emergency Curfew Laws

Emergency curfews are usually temporary orders by local, state, or federal governments in response to specific crises, such as:

  • Natural disasters (hurricanes, forest fires, explosions, etc.)
  • Public health crises (diseases, pandemics, quarantines, etc.)
  • Ongoing civil disturbances (protests, riots, terrorist threats, etc.)

Emergency Curfew Examples

Here are a few examples of emergency curfews that have been instituted in the United States in recent decades:

  • March 2020: Dozens of states and territories declared states of emergency in response to the coronavirus health crisis. This granted them authority to impose emergency and business curfews to contain the spread of COVID-19 as the newly declared pandemic took hold.
  • August 2008: New Orleans instituted an emergency "dusk to dawn" curfew as Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast.
  • September 2008: Houston set a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew as the city sought to clean up debris and repair power outages due to Hurricane Ike.
  • April 1992: Los Angeles imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and deployed the National Guard to help quell unrest and violence across the city. Widespread disturbances broke out after Los Angeles Police Department officers involved in the beating of Rodney King were acquitted of wrongdoing.

What Does an Emergency Curfew Include?

A city's laws may allow the mayor or other top municipal executive to take specific curfew-related actions in response to a local emergency. These could include:

  • Banning pedestrians from standing, sitting, walking, or biking
  • Banning cars from going anywhere or being parked in specific areas
  • Banning businesses from being open past curfew
  • Allowing only designated essential services
  • Allowing only fire, police, and hospital services to continue "business as usual"
  • Allowing the transportation of patients, utility emergency repairs, or emergency calls by physicians

Business Curfew Laws

Emergency curfew laws allow state and local governments to put curfews on businesses. These laws help maintain health and safety during a time of crisis. For instance, in March 2020, businesses worldwide were subjected to curfews to slow the spread of the coronavirus. State-of-emergency declarations forced some to close early, alter hours, shut down, or stop in-person service.

Business Curfews Related to Crimes

States have also enacted business curfew laws in densely populated or high-crime areas. The rules require businesses to close during late-night hours, e.g., from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Typically, business curfews do not apply to pharmacies. But they may apply to restaurants, liquor stores, and other establishments where people gather.

It is common for a city's business curfew law to remain "on the books" but be enforced only periodically. Usually, this happens as a law enforcement response to local crises or increased incidences of crime or violence.

Juvenile Curfew Laws

Juvenile curfew laws are typically enacted at the state and local levels. These curfews stop people of a certain age (usually under 18) from being in public or at a business during certain hours. A typical range for curfew hours is 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. The main goal of these laws is to keep social order and prevent juvenile crimes.

For instance, in Houston, it is unlawful for minors under 17 to be in any public place in the city between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weeknights. On weekends, the curfew runs from midnight to 6 a.m. A minor can face prosecution for breaking the curfew. Their parent or guardian may also be charged if they knowingly allowed the minor to be out in violation of the curfew law.

Controversy for Juvenile Curfew Laws

Not surprisingly, juvenile curfew laws have sparked controversy. They can lead to legal challenges. A common argument is that juvenile curfew laws are a form of age discrimination. However, courts often uphold curfew laws. The effectiveness of the challenges to curfew laws varies and depends on specific cases. The success of these challenges often depends on whether the laws meet specific standards. They cannot be too vague about the circumstances under which the laws apply.

Talk to an Attorney About Curfew Laws

Curfew laws and ordinances are implemented to ensure public safety. In rare instances, states put them in place as emergency measures. A pandemic, a natural disaster, or social unrest can often trigger such actions.

Understanding and navigating curfew laws can be complicated. The laws may vary in every state, and each local government may have its own rules when implementing curfew laws.

For questions related to curfew laws, it is best to consult a criminal defense attorney near you. They can give you legal advice tailored to your case. They can also offer guidance on understanding local criminal laws and curfew ordinances where you reside.

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