WEST NEW YORK, NJ — Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, a Superior Court judge today told West New York it could not continue to enforce its juvenile curfew ordinance until the court makes a final determination regarding the curfew's constitutionality.
Chancery Division Judge Martin L. Greenberg, in Hudson County, issued a preliminary injunction in a suit brought by the ACLU-NJ on behalf of two families whose children had been arrested under the curfew. Finding that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the curfew was unconstitutional, the court told West New York that it must immediately cease enforcement of the ordinance and cease prosecution of curfew violators.
The judge said that it was unlikely that West New York would be able to show that “house confinement of all minors under age 18” was a permissible restriction on minors' constitutional rights.
West New York's curfew, which was enacted in 1993, prohibits anyone under age 18 from being in a public place between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. unless accompanied by their parent or guardian. According to the township's attorney, the ordinance provides exceptions for juveniles traveling to or from work, engaged in a medical emergency, or traveling to or from events sponsored by community or religious organizations. Curfew violators and their parents are subject to fines of up to $1,000, and up to 90 days community service.
“West New York's curfew is an assault on the basic constitutional rights of thousands of young people in the township,” said David M. Kohane, an attorney in the Hackensack law firm of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard who is handling the case for the ACLU. “Placing everyone in West New York under house arrest from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. would certainly reduce crime, but how many people would be willing to pay that price?”
Kohane noted that the teenagers involved in the ACLU lawsuit have been arrested for curfew violations while returning home from delivering cake to a grandparent, eating in a restaurant with an adult friend, walking home from work at McDonalds, and walking home with friends from a movie. “It makes no sense to punish these teenagers, and thousands of other good kids like them, for problems they haven't caused.”
“The police already have the ability to arrest juvenile criminals; the curfew adds nothing more than the obligation to arrest the innocent as well,” said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney David Rocah. “The proper response to juvenile crime is to arrest the criminals,” Rocah said, “not to place thousands of law-abiding young people under house arrest.”
Courts around the country have reached differing conclusions regarding the constitutionality of juvenile curfews, and the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on their legality. Juvenile curfews have been found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Courts of Washington, Iowa, and Hawaii, and have recently been struck down by federal courts in Washington, D.C., and San Diego, California. However courts have upheld curfews in Dallas, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia.
Studies have repeatedly shown that curfews are an ineffective crime-fighting tool, and many large cities have either scrapped or refused to adopt curfew laws. A recent comprehensive study of curfew enforcement in California by the Justice Policy Institute found that curfew enforcement had no discernible effect on juvenile crime, and in many jurisdictions, juvenile crime actually increased. In addition, federal crime statistics show that the majority of juvenile crimes occur during non-curfew hours, peaking between 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.
The ACLU lawsuit — Betancourt v. Township of West New York, docket number C-6-99 — was filed in the New Jersey Superior Court, Chancery Division, Hudson County, on January 19, 1999.