Friday, August 21, 2009

Teen curfews are unconstitutional

From the 17 August 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

It has long been argued by teens at large, their trusting parents and adults of a libertarian bent that curfew laws directed at teenagers are unconstitutional. Despite the logic – and law - behind such a belief, misguided public officials still proceed with the development and enforcement of curfews, most of which go untested in the courts due to a populace either unwilling or unable to pursue the overturning of the law.

New York residents who rightly assume that we have certain freedoms whether we are 16 or 60 can finally rest easy. A father-son team decided to take on Rochester’s 2006 curfew law, seeing it through three levels of the court system. Earlier this Summer, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the duo, 5-2, striking down the city’s law. The high court cited its obstruction of youths’ rights to freedom of movement, expression, association and equal protection.

Rochester’s curfew, similar to those used by other municipalities, read as follows: "It is unlawful for minors to be in or upon any public place within the City at any time between 11:00 p.m. of one day and 5:00 a.m. of the immediately following day, except that on Friday and Saturday the hours shall be between 12:00 midnight and 5:00 a.m. of the immediately following day." It offered some exceptions to the rule which included the presence of an adult or some sort of employment activity. Any minor found in violation of the law could have been detained and taken into custody by the police, receiving the same treatment as a real criminal.

The thought process behind Rochester’s law was similar to the where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire mentality applied to restrictive gun control measures, another assault on constitutional rights. Pistol permit laws assume that all guns have the potential to be involved in a crime, while curfews assume the same for all youths. These laws cast a wide net in which everyone is looked at as being intrinsically evil, when, in reality, it’s only a very, very small percentage of guns or teens that commit crimes. As much as it is unfair to paint all gun owners as thugs it’s just as unfair to do the same to teenagers. There are some really great kids out there, many of whom posses moral and just behaviors that put most adults’ values to shame.

The court’s ruling helps to correct a hypocrisy that we share too often with kids: Their parents, teachers, and community push them hard to be and become good citizens, yet we deny them of rights determined to be natural in scale because we don’t trust them to handle the mantle of citizenship. If the teens have been properly raised by their parents and properly educated by their schools we should be able to trust them to pursue free speech and associate with their peers and not worry about them causing trouble. We can’t let them become responsible adults unless they are allowed some semblance of responsibility as minors. It’s a part of the growing up process.

As equally important, teenagers are social creatures, more so than adults, and need the camaraderie of their peers. This doesn’t make them gang material. What is so wrong about a half-dozen teenagers hanging out at 11:00 p.m. in a parking lot sharing some laughs on a typical summer night? What’s so wrong about a group of boys camping-out under the stars in the town park? What is so wrong about some kids going down to the harbor at sunrise to catch a few fish? Are they planning a crime? That’s doubtful. They’re boys being boys, girls being girls. Since when is that a crime?

Similarly, there is another disconnect in the logic behind gun control laws that can also be seen in curfews. Simply put, law-breakers don’t care about laws; that’s why they’re called law-breakers. If someone is depraved enough to want to rob, rape or murder, a permit or a curfew won’t stop them. They’ll ignore those obstacles. That’s why people are still gunned down by “illegal” guns in New York and that’s why high-schoolers’ names still appear in the police reports in curfew-laden communities. Laws work only on the just.

Thankfully, the Court of Appeals did not fall into the trap of assuming all minors are punks. The judges ignored the hysteria and had the mental faculties to realize that we are deserved of freedoms and natural rights no matter our age. It’s time that the curfews in countless cities and towns across the state saw the same fate as Rochester’s. For the first time in a long time, law-abiding minors and their parents now have the tool – the state court’s ruling – to bring about their demise.

No comments: