FREDERICK -- It's after 11 o'clock on one of those warm summer nights when the humidity sticks like a layer of clammy skin.
Teen-agers strut, stand and drive along Market Street with no discernible fear of being stopped by the police officer on the other side of this small city's main strip.
"I just like to walk around and go sightseeing," says Christina Brown, 14. She's hanging out with several teen-agers in front of the closed IGA store and yelling to friends as they cruise by in cars that punctuate the night with loud heavy metal and rap.
Pockets of teen-agers like Christina converge in several areas on each side of the outskirts of the gentrified downtown, which bubbles with activity from the bars and restaurants that are definitely geared to a yuppie clientele.
One year ago, the teens might not have seemed so carefree at this time of night. The city had been enforcing a 1978 curfew ordinance that required minors under 18 to be home by 11:59 p.m. Saturdays and 11 p.m. other nights. But a Frederick County judge overturned the law Oct. 3. Then on July 9, Maryland's second highest court went even further, ruling that the law violated the constitutional rights of minors.
The Court of Special Appeals' three-judge panel, in an opinion written by Judge Diana J. Gibbon Motz, said the state's constitution does not specifically grant power to any local governments to impose curfews.
Frederick officials plan to appeal the ruling in the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. But if the decision stands, it could nullify the state's approximately 40 other curfew laws.
The local ordinances generally prohibit minors under 16 or 18 from being in public places between midnight and 6 a.m. unless accompanied by adults or attending a sanctioned public event.
In Baltimore, the curfew is in effect during the school year for minors under age 16. They are not permitted in public places without adults between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on school nights and between midnight and 6 a.m. on weekends.
The purpose stated in Baltimore's ordinance is to ensure that children complete their homework and get enough rest for the following school day. A rarity, it has the approval of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland.
But other ordinances were written without such language, which makes their existence tenuous.
Some other jurisdictions with curfew laws that are in jeopardy are Aberdeen, Chestertown, Elkton, Hagerstown, Havre de Grace, Ocean City and Westminster, according to James P. Peck, associate director of research at the Maryland Municipal League.
Jack Schwartz, chief counsel of opinions for the Maryland attorney general, said the court's decision could have a severe impact on curfew laws throughout the state.
"From my preliminary reading, it's written in such a way to have a broad impact on the ability of municipalities to write curfews," said Mr. Schwartz, adding that he is still reviewing the ruling.
The Maryland ACLU is cheering the decision because, an official said, the Frederick law and most curfew ordinances violate the fundamental right of minors by giving government too much authority over them. The ACLU had filed a brief in the Court of Special Appeals to oppose the law.
Susan Goering, legal director of the state's ACLU, said curfews often punish otherwise law-abiding minors.
"They lump those children in with people who are out to break the law," Ms. Goering said. "I think it makes sense for children not to be on the street late at night, but I think parents ought to be the ones to make that decision without interference from the government."
The Frederick curfew ordinance was imposed in 1978, but seldom enforced. When it was used, black critics contend, it was aimed at keeping blacks out of the downtown area.
This all started at 12:30 a.m. Oct. 21, 1990, when several police officers entered the Rainbow Hunan restaurant and club on North Market Street, looking for underage patrons. The club had become a popular night spot for black teen-agers, but local merchants complained to city officials about loitering and noise generated by the crowds.
During the incident, police arrested 28 black teen-agers, restrained them with handcuffs and led them to a bus outside the club where they took their pictures before driving them to the police station. None of the minors was formally charged, but they were held at the station until picked up by parents or guardians.
Two of the teen-agers arrested by police filed a complaint against the city and Police Chief Richard Ashton, alleging false imprisonment, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and other violations.
"That particular law was used to arrest African-American kids," said Willie J. Mahone, the lawyer who took the challenge to court. "Police went to a restaurant-nightclub that was conducting activities it was licensed to conduct. It was the only nightclub downtown geared to African-Americans.
"They were attempting to practice apartheid. They were attempting to remove African-American youth from that area of the city," Mr. Mahone said.
Several black teen-agers and young adults agree. Many blacks call Frederick a "redneck" or "KKK" town that tries to make life difficult for black youth by giving them no place to go while ignoring rowdiness of white teens in public places.
"Where can you go?" asks Darrell L. Rollins, 24, as he grips a can of Budweiser outside a friend's home off South Market Street while others stand around and chat.
He notes that the Rainbow Hunan closed several months after the police incident, and remains vacant. A For Rent sign is posted in its front window.
"If you go anywhere, you've got police flying around you, acting like you've done something wrong," Mr. Rollins says. "I work for what I've got."
As he talks, two boys shoot a basketball at a rim nailed to a plywood backboard on a pole this peaceful night. A faint mixture of cigarette fumes and beer hangs in the air. Down the street, black teen-agers sit on stoops, watching as cars roll by.
"Frederick is a good city," adds Bruce E. Hopper, 24, one of Mr. Rollins' friends. "It's just the way they treat blacks."
They agree that the curfew ordinance should stay off the books, mainly because it was applied unfairly against blacks.
But at the north end of Market Street, some parents say they hope the Court of Appeals reinstates the law.
"I think it's good. It keeps him out of trouble," says Larry Miller, 42, as he sits on his stoop on 6th Street and points to his 13-year-old son, Shawn. "When I used to sneak out, you could stay out all night and sleep on the street. Frederick is a small town, but it's a lot different than it was when I was 13. Trouble wasn't like it is now."
That's one of the main arguments the city will use to fight the Court of Special Appeals' decision.
"We feel the curfew ordinance protects juveniles from criminal activity," said city lawyer N. Lynn Tillery, adding that the city was preparing to file its appeal with the state's highest court after getting the go-ahead from the mayor and Board of Alderman. "The second reason is police-related activity involving juveniles, and we feel it enhances parental rights, giving parents more control over their juveniles."
She denied charges that police were only enforcing the curfew against black teens, pointing to statistics that show 15 whites were among the 34 teens arrested for violations from the time of the nightclub incident to the end of 1990.
Again, critics point out that the other 19 were black in a city where blacks comprise only about 13 percent of the city's population.
"They really had no intention of going after white kids at all," said Daniel Q. Mahone, the brother of Willie Mahone, who also is a lawyer in the case. "That was an afterthought. Why not make it look like they were applying equal force?"