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Battle over curfews going to Md.'s highest court Recent ruling could scrap about 40 current laws


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.

Pockets of teen-agers converge in several areas on each side of the outskirts of the gentrified downtown, which bubbles with activity from the bars and restaurants.

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 either 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.

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