The Tyranny of Curfews

A group of Lake Oswego high school students is trying to get the city of Lake Oswego to repeal its curfew ordinance. This local activism comes out of an assignment they were given in a Political Action Seminar class. The kids have apparently come to the conclusion that if you are a teen in Lake O, the curfew is an onerous burden to bear, and a violation of your constitutional rights.

The ordinance in question forbids kids younger than 14 to be in a public place between 9:15 p.m. and 6 a.m., and forbids kids between 14 and 18 years old to be in a public place after 10:15 p.m. and before 6 a.m. on weeknights (after midnight and before 6 a.m. on weekends) during the school year. In the summer, the curfew is midnight to 6 a.m. every day. Is this rather Draconian?

Not really. The ordinance grants an exception if the teen is in the company of a parent, or involved in “entertainment, night school or employment, which requires his or her presence.”

That doesn’t sound too unusual or unreasonable to me. But the teenage residents of Lake Oswego argue that the curfew restricts their constitutional right to move about freely, is discriminatory (it only applies to teenagers), and it takes away a parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit. And they have the support of the ACLU.

Last night the Lake Oswego City Council refused to abolish the curfew. The students have done some legal research, and have found some cases in their favor. In particular, in 1997 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a San Diego city curfew as overly broad, inconsistently enforced and a violation of parents’ rights. With the help of the ACLU, the students are considering legal action against the city to get the curfew removed.

I think this is ill-advised. Curfew laws are a tool, a tool that lets communities try and minimize problems with troublemaking teens by letting police intervene before the problems become serious. They give the officers discretion on when and how to intervene. Most of the kids cited for curfew violations brought themselves to the attention of the police for other reasons, like traffic violations.

The only anti-curfew argument that the kids provide that I think holds any credibility at all is the assertion that it gives Lake O police too much discretion to harass teens for no reason. I think that could be a genuine issue, but that’s what happens when you have a broadly useful tool — it can be misused.

But rather than eliminate the tool, let’s address the misuse. If an officer is genuinely harassing an individual teen, then that harassment should be addressed and corrected, rather than throwing out the entire ordinance and making it even harder to police the community. Apparently Lake O police cited 19 children for violating the curfew law last year. All year. Just nineteen kids got cited. This deoesn’t sound like a police state to me.

Perhaps I’m getting old, but this whole issue sounds like a bunch of teenagers complaining that they can’t go and do what they want, when they want. I can appreciate that desire. Honestly. But some of us old fogeys also want a stable and safe community, and sometimes those desires come into conflict. I would hope that the existence of that conflict could be acknowledged gracefully, but I suspect we will see this issue settled in court. At taxpayer expense.

6 Comments so far

  1. Banana Lee Fishbones (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 10:28 am

    Why don’t they try a temporary lifting of the curfew? If they can go say, 60 days with no uptick in teen incidents, then maybe it is an issue to be revisited.

    We did this when I was in high school to resolve the dress code problem of living in a place where it was 100+ degrees for three solid months and 80s-90s for a month on either side of that but we were not allowed to wear shorts at all. we got them to change the dress code by getting trial runs and when they weren’t abused it was changed.

  2. divebarwife (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 10:31 am

    I don’t think I have an issue with the 14 year old curfew – although I think it really should be more a parental decision than a government one – this may at least help with some bad parenting issues. However really – telling someone who is 17 or 18 years old that they have to be home by 10:15? Seniors in high school who aren’t allowed to go to a movie that starts after 8 pm? Eons ago when I was a high school senior I remember going to the 18 to enter/21 to drink night club, dancing until the placed closed at 2 am and then heading to Perkins (Shari’s type place) to get some food and sodas to replenish before heading home at 3 or 4 am…..or camping out overnight at the local record store to get tickets when they went on sale the next morning….all those things would now be illegal? My parents knew were I was, I wasn’t doing anything I shouldn’t have been. But because some kids do we’re going to regulate a parents ability to decide if their kids are responsible or not? Not just ridiculous but complete wrong! I’m with these kids!

  3. jonashpdx (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 10:33 am

    as opposed to all us old fogeys who don’t live in Lake Oswego but in parts of town where I don’t know if there is a curfew, but kids here would blatantly ignore it and the cops would shrug at it either way.
    it all seems somewhat ridiculous to me, and makes me sad that again, taxpayer dollars will be wasted taking something like this to court.

  4. fnb (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 10:55 am

    If LO is paying for it, I could care less.

    It’s their community, let them make it a police state/rampant crime neighborhood. Aren’t they filthy rich anyway?

    Who cares?

  5. Banana Lee Fishbones (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 11:29 am


    Wait. What are we talking about again?

    Where’s my pants? What smells like mustard!?

  6. Mary Sue (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 11:50 am

    When I was a teenager, I lived in a town with pretty much this exact same curfew, as did the towns on either side.

    Didn’t stop me from running through the French Laundry garden at 3am with the Yountville cops on my tail (we, uh, had been tresspassing on some other property nearby. To use their swingset. I was a rebel, Dottie).

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