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Court finds Frederick's curfew law too vague


The state's highest court has struck down Frederick's curfew, ruling that its wording, which is identical to Baltimore's curfew law, is too vague to be constitutional.

The Court of Appeals decision Friday may trigger a legal challenge to Baltimore's year-old law because the ruling warns that a municipality may be liable if it uses an unconstitutional curfew to detain juveniles, legal experts said.

"What it means is any municipality, like Baltimore, that continues to enforce a curfew that could be unconstitutional is doing so at its own peril," said Deborah A. Jeon, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Agent Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a Baltimore police spokesman, said about 6,000 youths have been detained by police since the ordinance went into effect last June. He said there are no plans to curtail arrests of curfew violators as a result of the ruling.

The case had been closely watched by civil liberties groups and officials in Baltimore, which became one of about 200 cities nationwide to enact a curfew.

Both Baltimore's and Frederick's curfews prohibit youths younger than 17 from being on the streets after 11 p.m. weeknights and midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

The court ruled Frederick's law was too vague because it allowed an exception to the curfew for children "attending a cultural, scholastic, athletic or recreational activity supervised by bona fide organization."

"It must be possible for citizens to decide whether an unaccompanied 17 year old might be detained . . . for attending a midnight church service, a baseball game that ran into extra innings, a concert at Hood College, or a movie that ended after 11," said the 59-page opinion written by Judge John C. Eldridge.

Neal M. Janey, Baltimore City solicitor, declined comment on the case Friday.

But City Councilman Martin O'Malley, who sponsored the city curfew law, said the measure was passed over objections from city attorneys because council members wanted to keep youths safe and out of trouble on summer nights.

The city's lawyers advised council members to wait for the ruling on Frederick's curfew, but "we didn't want kids getting shot by stray bullets while this bill was sitting on a shelf collecting dust," Mr. O'Malley said.

The Frederick case stemmed from a suit alleging false imprisonment and assault that was filed against the city by two African-Americans. They said city police officers discriminated in applying the law.

Friday's ruling upheld a Court of Special Appeals decision that held the ordinance unconstitutional. But the Court of Appeals went further by overruling the lower court and finding that Frederick "in enacting and enforcing the unconstitutional ordinance, was directly responsible for the plaintiff's constitutional injury."

Frederick City Attorney N. Lynn Board said the city updated its curfew law, striking out the phrase "bona fide organization" and rewriting it to be consistent with a curfew upheld by federal courts in Texas.

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