Do you know where your children are? Teens, officials react after WNY curfew law is declared unconstitutional

Keeping minors off the streets and out of trouble has traditionally been considered the job of their parents. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court reflected that view on March 23 when they ruled that an eight-year-old curfew ordinance in West New York is unconstitutional.

The Appellate Division said that the ordinance was “not broad enough to recognize the right of parents to permit their children to participate in many legitimate activities.”

While representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), the group that brought the suit, do not think that the ordinance can be rewritten in a way that complies with the ruling, West New York Mayor Albio Sires said last week that the town’s attorneys are working on rewriting it.

“I think it would be difficult to draft an ordinance that would meet the criteria that is set by the court,” said ACLU attorney David Kohane.

“We don’t think the curfew can be changed,” said ACLU staff attorney J.C. Salyer. “The law is an intrusion on the rights of minors to go about their business and do legitimate activities.”

West New York’s curfew ordinance has been in place since 1993. As it is presently written, the ordinance prohibits minors from being in public places from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. The ordinance makes exceptions for minors who are traveling to and from work, medical emergencies or events sponsored by community or religious organizations.

Because of the ruling, that ordinance presently is not in effect.

“I am confident that we will be able to [draft] a curfew law that is accepted by everybody,” said Sires, adding that the city is also looking at similar ordinances in other municipalities.

Teens in West New York had mixed views about the ordinance last week.

Law abiding citizens

This suit was brought in 1999 by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation, a non-profit, public interest legal firm that mostly deals with cases in which the government violates a private person’s constitutional rights. They brought the case on behalf of two families whose children had been arrested under the curfew. According to David M. Kohane, the attorney from the Hackensack firm of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman and Leonard, who is handling the case for the ACLU-NJ, these kids were performing legitimate activities like sitting on a neighbor’s front porch or walking home from their grandmother’s home around the corner.

“These kids were arrested doing perfectly legitimate acts other than the fact that it was during curfew hours,” said ACLU-NJ staff attorney J.C. Salyer.

Sires defended the curfew, saying that these arrests did not typify the arrests made under this law.

“This is an extreme case,” he said. “This is not an example of all kids that get brought in.” Sires said the police department will not make these kinds of hasty arrests anymore.

“We have a more professional and better trained police department now than we did then,” said Sires, adding that the case was brought three or four years ago.

Do we need one?

In 1993, when the ordinance was passed, West New York may have needed to set a curfew. But crime has dropped since then. Is a curfew really necessary now?

Sires said that the curfew will help reduce the amount of juvenile crime in the town.

“I view the curfew as another tool to keep law in order,” said Sires.

West New York’s police director, Joseph Peliccio, agreed that the town did not have a juvenile problem. But he said that if the town passes a rewritten curfew ordinance, he will enforce it.

“We have police officers in the schools now,” said Peliccio. “The kids are getting to know the cops. That helps us a lot.”

However, Peliccio does admit that there are always some juveniles that need to be watched more closely than others.

“I don’t want to paint the entire juvenile community for a couple of them that don’t know how to behave,” Peliccio said.

According to the ACLU-NJ, there is no evidence that a curfew is necessary in the town.

“From what I have seen, research does not support that a curfew can help fight crime,” said Kohane. “If people are going to violate the law, they are going to violate the law. The result of having a curfew is that the kids who aren’t going to violate the law have to stay in too. And that is the vast majority of them.”

The kids speak out

M any West New York teenagers agreed last week that a curfew is a good way to help keep kids out of trouble, while others didn’t even know that there had been a 10 o’clock curfew in town.

Memorial High School sophomore Natalie Canon said she didn’t know there was a curfew in West New York. “What is the curfew?” asked Canon, whose curfew at home is 11:30 p.m.

However, other teenagers not only knew about the curfew, but thought it was a good way to keep kids out of trouble.

“Yeah, I think we do [need a curfew],” said Natisha Villarreal, 16. “It is good for the kids even though they don’t think so.”

“I think the curfew is kind of a good thing,” agreed Jacob Baez, 17. “It keeps kids off the streets and out of trouble.”

However, 10 p.m. might be a little early for high school students, they said. Many said that they already had a curfew set for them at home.

“Maybe 10 p.m. was too early,” said Baez, who has an 11 p.m. curfew at home.

“I don’t go out that much,” agreed Villarreal. “My mother is really strict. My curfew for her is 11 p.m.”

“The ruling gives families in the township the freedom and respect they deserve,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney David Kohane. “It makes no sense to criminalize the innocent activities of these teenagers, and numerous other good kids like them, for problems they haven’t caused.”


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