Westminster weighs late-night restraints on youths


Mayor W. Benjamin Brown wants Westminster to adopt a curfew that would allow police to pick up children and teen-agers who are out after midnight, take them home and then decide whether to refer the family to social or juvenile services agencies.

City Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein, who chairs the council's public safety committee, has a separate proposal that would enlist parents to work with police in an effort to keep young people off the streets late at night.

City residents greeted the idea of a curfew with strong opinions on both sides.

"No," said Alicia Costley, 19, despite the fact that she is old enough to be exempt. "They don't even have a place for us to hang out."

Her friend Nicky Stull, 19, agreed. "What if it's like a hot summer night? Nobody has air conditioning," she said.

Teen-agers are already asked to leave the city playground at night, said Vanessa Ruiz, 17. "They're just going to get a lot of complaints [if a curfew is imposed], because there's no place for us to go," she said.

The playground closes at 11 p.m. during the summer and at 9 p.m. the rest of the year.

Jason Lang, 13, said a curfew is a good idea. "There are gangs out there," he said. "I wouldn't want to be out after midnight. It would be safer [with a curfew]."

"People wouldn't get beaten up" if Westminster had a curfew, said Billy Walsh, 13.

Mr. Brown said he plans to submit a formal curfew proposal to the City Council in September.

He is thinking of a midnight curfew that would apply to anyone under age 16, weekdays and weekends. City police would take curfew violators home and would use parental reactions as a basis for deciding whether to refer the child to the Department of Juvenile Services or the family to the Department of Social Services.

Mr. Brown said he would oppose fines for curfew violations because he doesn't consider such violations crimes. The curfew is "a way to express concerns about kids," he said.

Ms. Orenstein said she would rather see Westminster adopt a program like Charleston, S.C.'s "Operation Midnight."

In Charleston, police stop children under 17 who are on the streets after midnight and call their parents. If the parents have signed up for Operation Midnight, they tell the officer whether to bring the child home or release him or her, said Charles Francis, department public information officer.

If the parents haven't signed up for the program, police take the child home.

Ms. Orenstein said she liked the cooperative approach. "I would rather have a partnership between elected officials, parents and police," she said. "I'm not comfortable with the police chasing [children] down in a curfew situation."

Curfews across the nation have faced court challenges in recent years. For example, a Frederick curfew was struck down by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in July 1992. The court said that the state's constitution does not specifically grant power to any local governments to impose curfews. The Frederick curfew required minors under 18 to be home by 11:59 p.m. Saturdays and 11 p.m. other nights.

The Supreme Court inspired curfew advocates last month by refusing to hear a constitutional challenge to a Dallas curfew.

Mr. Brown said he wants to clear his proposed curfew with the city attorney to be sure it meets the legal tests of the Dallas ordinance.

Dallas' law forbids anyone under 17 to be in any public place after 11 p.m. weeknights and after midnight on weekends. It allows exceptions for children accompanied by adults, on errands for parents, going to or from work, or on sidewalks outside their home or their neighbors' homes. It does not let parents give permission for their children to be out.

Westminster Council President Kenneth A. Yowan has consistently opposed curfews. Adults, not young people, commit most crimes in the city, he said.

Mr. Yowan pointed to statistics showing that juvenile arrests represented about 25 percent of the total in the early 1980s, but that figure dropped to 11 percent in 1992.

He noted that in 1993, juveniles accounted for 17.5 percent of all arrests. In the first six months of this year, juveniles represented 16.6 percent of the total.

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