Curfew Ruling a Blow to Parents

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for July 27 and thereafter
710 words

INDIANAPOLIS – As if parents of teen-agers didn’t have a hard enough time already, U.S. District Judge John Tinder has made things harder still. With his July 23 ruling striking down Indiana’s curfew law, Tinder stripped parents of a most powerful tool for getting kids home at a reasonable hour.

In a 34-page decision preventing enforcement of the 11 p.m. weekday and 1 a.m. weekend curfews, Tinder ruled that the law unconstitutionally usurped parental authority.

It’s hard to miss the irony. By invalidating Indiana’s curfew, the court undermined — indeed, usurped — the authority of those we entrust with setting the rules: state lawmakers acting on behalf of parents and police.

Indiana’s curfew is hardly oppressive. The Indiana General Assembly rewrote it in March after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the previous version. The appeals court said that law failed to protect teens’ rights to engage in First Amendment activity – such as protesting a Death Row execution – during curfew hours.

The new law provided for every imaginable exception. Teens could be out in the wee hours if:

The same Indianapolis family that challenged the earlier curfew law went to court against this one. Plaintiff Nancy Hodgkins argued that the new curfew would prevent her daughter from staying late at a friend’s house to study or from paying a late-night visit to her recently hospitalized father. And that, Mrs. Hodgkins claimed, would violate her rights as a parent to set the rules.

Judge Tinder, who didn’t buy that argument in the prior case, changed his mind and struck down the law on due process grounds. (An Indianapolis curfew ordinance distinct from the state law remains in effect and will be enforced, according to Mayor Bart Peterson).

Tinder’s decision hinged on the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizens equal protection and due process of law. Those guarantees mean the state cannot interfere with parents’ decisions on how to care for and control their children, at least not without compelling reasons, Tinder said.

While the state argued that curfews keep children safe and reduce juvenile crime, the court found no data to support the notion. To the contrary, Indianapolis Police Department statistics "show that the number of reported crimes in Indianapolis goes down in the late evening and early morning hours and, based on the number of arrests, serious juvenile crime also declines during curfew hours."

Is serious juvenile crime really the issue here? The parents I know all support curfews, and not because they fear their kids will become armed robbers without them. What they fear are drugs, alcohol and lack of supervision.

Plain and simple, curfews help parents enforce rules. They help them control their children. Consider this real conversation I had with my 16-year-old son.

Son: Mom, can I go to the movies with my girlfriend?

Me: Yes, but be home by 11.

Son: Why not 11:30? She doesn’t have to be home until 11:15.

Me: Because it’s a Wednesday night and the curfew is 11. (End of discussion).

Indiana legislators did not invent curfews to harass teens. They are a tool as old as society. In medieval England, a "curfew bell" rang at 9 p.m. to signal the end of the working day. Anyone out after hours needed a lantern and a reason for being on the streets. An article on the New Jersey State Bar Foundation website traces curfew laws in the United States back to the 1890s.

Tinder insists that Indiana’s curfew violates the "substantive due process rights" of parents. To that, most Hoosier parents would reply, take our due process right and shove it. Nothing good can happen when our children are out after 1 a.m.

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