San Diego's juvenile curfew law—so rigorously enforced that every juvenile CityBeat interviewed at random admitted to being stopped for it and so restrictive that it incurred the wrath of the ACLU—was enacted as a way to cut down on gang violence.
By that standard, the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. youth ban has failed. After 11 years and thousands of curfew citations and arrests since the law took effect, gang-related crimes are up 23 percent this year over last, and gang-related homicides increased 61 percent during that same period. Moreover, despite the San Diego Police Department's insistence that great effort is made to inform the community of the curfew, every one of the 15 parents interviewed for this story were either confused about which hours the law covered or unaware a curfew even existed.
“It starts at 11 p.m., doesn't it?” asked Brian Barnhorst, speaking outside a Jamba Juice in University City. Three adult friends with him shrugged uncertainly. All four said they have teen children covered under the ordinance.
“I didn't know there was a curfew until we got a call from the police,” said Brian Gonzalez, whose teen son, Michael, has twice been detained on curfew violations.
“To my understanding, the curfew is from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” said Michelle Drake.
It is. Then Drake added: “That switches to 11 p.m. during the summer.”
Asked about the apparent confusion among residents about the curfew, San Diego Police spokesperson Monica Munoz said the department spreads the word about the law through its website and a variety of other sources, explaining in an e-mail that the department has “juvenile-services officers who work in the schools and work closely with districts and their police officers. School police also spread info to the students, and the schools educate on this topic as well.
I'm fairly certain you could find this info on the various school district websites, also.
“You know, ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Munoz pointed out. “We tell people that a lot.”
No doubt. According to San Diego Police, more than 4,300 minors were cited or arrested under the curfew law from 2002 to 2006. The department could not provide statistics for the number of youths who were stopped for being out past curfew but not cited.
Michael Stamp, 16, said officers stopped him last year as he left a University City Starbucks to go home. “It was, like, 10:01 [p.m.],” he said. “I had gone to a movie that ended about 9:50 and decided to get some coffee before heading home. The cops just checked my ID and then told me to get home. It bothered me, though—they should have known that if you're just walking down the street in jeans and a T-shirt that you're not part of a gang.”
Gonzalez' 17-year-old son, also named Michael, said fear of getting caught out past curfew prevents him from taking a girl out on a Friday-night date. “It limits everything I do,” he said. “It sort of makes me feel like a little kid. Ten o'clock really isn't that late. If I'm out past 10, then I'm, like, really paranoid. I'm always worried and keep my eyes peeled.”
Twice in the past three years, Michael's parents were treated to late-night calls from the police, asking them to come get their curfew-violating son.
“The first time happened when me and my friends were at the beach at a bonfire—it was like 10:15 p.m.,” he said.
“A cop walked over and made us call our parents to take us home. He said they'd take us to Juvenile Hall if they couldn't get a hold of our parents. I was, like, ‘Whoa, this sucks.' At first, my parents were upset until they realized [my friends and I] didn't even know there was a curfew.”
The second incident occurred about a year later, when Michael and a friend climbed a fence at E.B. Stanley Middle School to play a board game “without worrying about how loud we got.” That produced a response of a police helicopter and at least one squad car—and a second call to the parents. The experience left Michael bitter.
“I haven't been mistreated or felt threatened in any way by anyone other than the police,” he said.
And that, said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, is part of the problem with curfew laws. By most measurable standards, Michael Gonzalez is a good kid: a well-spoken high-school senior with a clean record—except for violations of the city's curfew ordinance. Nine years ago, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice conducted a study of curfew laws in large California cities, including San Diego, and found they had virtually no impact on juvenile crime except a negative one: They tended to introduce youths to the criminal-justice system for the first time.
“What we find is that curfews tend to be more for a symbolic purpose,” said Macallair. “If there's been a lot of attention in the media about youth crime, local officials feel the need to respond, and curfews are an easy way to do that because they don't require any additional expenditures of resources, just a redeployment of resources. The problem is they don't resolve very much. If the curfew is supposed to reduce youth crime, most youth crime occurs between 3 and 6 p.m. and very little after 10 p.m.
“We looked at communities that had curfew enforcement and three that didn't,” Macallair said, “and saw no difference in crime rates across the board. You had youth crime decline in cities that didn't have enforcement and no decline in cities that did.”
Moreover, the study found that in some cities with enforced curfew laws, juvenile crime rates actually increased. That might have been the result of the tried-and-true (if not publicly touted) reasoning behind stepping up police stops: The more people you stop, the more crimes you'll uncover. The report also found racial bias in curfew enforcement in L.A., Ventura, Fresno and Santa Clara counties (Latinos and African-Americans were cited at twice the rate of white youths), but San Diego wasn't mentioned.
San Diego has had a curfew law in one form or another for the better part of a century. In 1994, the City Council voted to dramatically step up enforcement of a juvenile curfew dating back to 1947. That decision—and the subsequent arrest of a teen named Gabriel Nunez—resulted in a challenge by the ACLU Foundation of San Diego, which held that the law violated Nunez' civil rights. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling in June 1997 that the city's ordinance failed to address the constitutional rights of juveniles and their parents and struck it down.
The City Council, citing concern over increased gang activity, responded by quickly passing the current law, which provides numerous exceptions allowing a juvenile to be out past 10 p.m.
The standard penalty for first-time curfew violators is 20 hours of community service. Subsequent violations can net a youth a court-ordered 6 p.m. curfew and 30 hours of community service, a San Diego Superior Court spokesperson said.
If there is significant local opposition to the city's curfew, it's hard to find. With the exception of Macallair and the ACLU (which continues to single out San Diego's curfew as particularly onerous), just about everyone interviewed for this article sees the ordinance as a good one. Even the two young Michaels who'd run afoul of the curfew view the restriction as a necessary evil.
“Where I live, curfews really aren't important at all,” Michael Gonzalez said. “But if there is a place where there really are gangs out late, then maybe it's a necessary tool for combating crime.”
The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce has no official position on the curfew. But Scott Alevy, vice president of public policy and communications for the chamber, said that “as father of a teenage boy who's 17,” he's just fine with it.
“It's interesting that the first year you have a license to drive in the state of California, you have to be off the road been 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.,” Alevy said. “That's pretty good reasoning, because studies have found that most accidents occur in those hours. When I was underage, sure, we enjoyed being out at night, but the truth is, most of the trouble we got in was during those hours. I understand the need for the curfew. Sure, from a business standpoint, some businesses are going to be impacted, but that's minimal in relation to the importance of keeping the streets safer.”
In other words, despite the increased gang violence or other evidence of its ineffectiveness, the ordinance isn't likely to be repealed or adjusted any time soon. It's just too popular among residents and officials. That fact wasn't lost on Bill Harris, a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders.
“For the ordinance to be reevaluated, there would have be something that would push the council to be interested in reevaluating it,” Harris said. “There's nothing that would motivate the mayor or the council to consider that at this time.”
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