Council revisions aimed at reviving nighttime curfew


One week after Baltimore suspended its nighttime curfew for juveniles, the City Council amended the law yesterday in an attempt to have it in place again this summer.

On a hot, humid day when few in the city had the spirit to move quickly, the council sped through two votes to adopt unanimously a revised curfew ordinance. But it is unclear when the curfew, aimed at keeping youths off the often-dangerous streets, will go into effect.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he will reinstate the year-old curfew only if legal experts determine that the latest version approved -- by the council is constitutionally sound.

Mr. Schmoke, who plans to offer nighttime recreation programs for youths as an alternative to hanging out on the streets, also said that community meetings and police training on the curfew are needed.

Most council members welcomed the mayor's plan to keep recreation centers and pools open later but said they still believe a curfew should be reinstated as soon as possible.

"I think we should do it as fast as possible and do it before more children get killed," said Agnes Welch, who represents many crime-ravaged neighborhoods in West Baltimore.

The council initially was torn over delaying a final vote on the amendments -- a series of specific exemptions allowing young people to be out after curfew hours.

After meeting with the mayor, Lawrence A. Bell III, who also represents West Baltimore, suggested holding off until the 10 changes drafted by his subcommittee could be reviewed by the city Law Department. But Ms. Welch and others urged action.

"Shame on us if we fail to leave here today without doing our work," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "Ten young people were shot last weekend. It is our job to do this for the safety of our children."

The new version approved by the council is largely unchanged from the curfew that went into effect July 28, 1994. Three of the XTC 19 council members were absent from yesterday's emergency session.

The curfew would continue to bar youths under age 17 from the streets after 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. It also would include fines and jail terms for parents of curfew violators, a provision seen as a way to increase parental responsibility.

The new law better defines the "bona fide" events a minor would be permitted to attend after curfew hours. That vague term led the state's highest court to strike down Frederick's almost identical curfew.

The new Baltimore version, patterned after a Dallas curfew that withstood a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court, specifies "bona fide organizations" that include school, church and civic events, and recreational programs that are supervised by adults. The other acceptable reasons for being outside after curfew hours would include running an errand for parents and working.

Listing some grim statistics aimed at demonstrating the need for a curfew, the law states that the number of minors shot in the city tripled from 1988 to 1993, to 542 from 179.

In the week since the curfew was suspended, elected officials, community leaders and police officers have been caught up in an emotional debate over youths and crime.

Curfew supporters, including the police chief and many officers, say it is useful in dispersing crowds of youths late at night. Since January, police had detained 1,177 youths, many of whom were arrested later on outstanding juvenile warrants.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and some neighborhood leaders, say it unfairly singles out the young and can lead to harassment.

"I just hate the constitutional rights of young people being sacrificed to politics," said Deborah A. Jeon, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland.

Mr. Schmoke, who has made it clear that he is not a fan of a curfew, said yesterday that he has hired a legal expert to study the issue. Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor who is an expert on search and seizure issues, will be paid $5,000 to advise the Law Department on the curfew.

Mrs. Clarke, who is opposing the mayor in September's Democratic primary, challenged him yesterday to sign the revised law immediately "to avoid another weekend of shooting of our youths and disruption of the neighborhoods."

Mr. Schmoke refused, saying, "Haste makes waste."

Thursday, with the council pushing to reinstate a curfew, Mr. Schmoke announced that he would direct money from a $1 million emergency fund to keep some recreation centers and pools open until 10 p.m. Most close at 6 p.m.

The curfew debate began after 10 people under age 20 were shot Sunday. Tuesday night, on a midnight tour of Park Heights Avenue, Mr. Bell and Councilman Martin O'Malley were confronted by a crowd of youths throwing batteries and soda bottles. The councilmen, who were not injured, had brought along a contingent of reporters with the goal of showing the need for a curfew.

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