Baltimore halts discredited curfew


After a similar law was struck down by the state's highest court last week, Baltimore's curfew for juveniles was suspended yesterday by Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

Since January, 1,177 teen-agers have been detained at a holding facility at the Northern District. Many of those later were arrested on outstanding juvenile warrants.

Mr. Frazier said the year-old curfew, aimed at keeping youths off of the city's increasingly violent streets after 11 p.m., was voided after Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge struck down an almost identical curfew in Frederick as unconstitutional.

As news of the suspension became public, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke pledged to call the 19-member council -- in recess until late September -- into an emergency session next week to alter the city's law.

"We can fix this in one day, and it's better to be safe citywide," Mrs. Clarke said. "We are trying to protect children from being injured. They need to be at home at night."

The curfew prohibits teen-agers under age 17 from being outside of their homes after 11 p.m. during the week and midnight on weekends. The law includes fines and jail terms for parents of curfew violators, although none has been charged.

For some, the suspension doesn't change much.

Several boys playing basketball at the Chick Webb Recreation Center in East Baltimore said they didn't pay attention to the curfew anyway. "People stay outside until whatever time they want to," said Andre Somerville, 12. "It's cool outside and hot inside. It's boring in the house, and some people don't have cable, so they go outside."

But 12-year-old Diello Harris, who was playing with Power Ranger action figures on the steps of a rowhouse in the 200 block of Patterson Park Ave. with brothers Clarence Lee, 11, and Calvin Lee, 9, said his parents strictly enforce the curfew. "You could get kidnapped or something," he said. "Or if you're riding a bike you could get hit by a car."

Mr. Frazier said yesterday that he was disappointed to have to suspend the curfew, his spokesman Sam Ringgold said.

"I don't see an alternative. . . . The department will, however, continue to aggressively enforce laws as they relate to juveniles being orderly and peaceful," Mr. Frazier said in a written statement.

The curfew was suspended just after noon when Gary May, a city lawyer for the Police Department, advised Mr. Frazier to halt enforcement as a way to avoid court challenges to the law, Mr. Ringgold said.

Specifically, Mr. Ringgold said, the city law vaguely allows children and teen-agers to remain outside of their homes after the curfew, but does not specify which "bona fide" organizations or events would be acceptable to police. That is the one of the main reasons Judge Eldridge struck down the Frederick curfew, the opinion states.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed the city curfew since last year, called the decision to suspend the law "prudent."

"We don't think the curfews are a good idea -- they take away the ability of families to decide how to run their own lives and also because of the way they are written, it's confusing for kids to know what they can and cannot do," he said.

If the curfew is reinstated, the ACLU plans to review the revised law, Mr. Comstock-Gay added.

City Council members Martin O'Malley, sponsor of the curfew legislation, and Lawrence A. Bell III pledged to hold a hearing next week so the curfew can be reinstated.

"I'll be darned if I let it hang out there through the summer," Mr. O'Malley said. "I don't want this curfew sitting on the sidelines when a young kid gets hit by gunfire while people say the council is too lazy to come back to amend it."

The curfew has received a lukewarm reception from teens to police administrators since Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signed it into law in July 1994.

Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Frazier had declared that the new law would be selectively enforced and that officers would need training to fully enforce it.

Police commanders at station houses throughout the city said yesterday that enforcing the curfew was never a priority -- because of a proliferation of more serious crimes -- but they did lament its suspension as losing a crime-fighting weapon.

"It's one less tool that we will be able to have to keep some kids out of harm's way and other kids from loitering at all hours of the night," said Capt. Michael J. Andrew of the Western District.

Northern District Lt. Robert E. Lassahn said the memo with Mr. Frazier's orders reached the stations yesterday afternoon and immediately was distributed to officers. "It's gotten to the point now where you are not surprised by these things," he said. "I couldn't point to the curfew and say it's reduced crime, but it's definitely a benefit to our people."

At the Southwestern District, Maj. Gary G. Lembach said he gets lots of complaints from residents about young teens hanging out after dark. "I got a call today from a woman in Walbrook complaining about youths outside dribbling basketballs until 3 a.m."

But he said yesterday's order was not a surprise. "We almost expected this," he said. "When we heard about [Frederick], we kind of figured we would follow suit."

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