We fully support giving police officers the tools they need to do an effective job. We question, though, whether the new nighttime curfew that got a preliminary nod from the SLO City Council last week is necessary at this time.
The ordinance makes it an infraction — subject to a $100 fine and/or 10 hours of community service for a first offense — for minors to be out later than 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. It also gives police the authority to order minors to go home, or to take them home if necessary.
The new rule is intended both to prevent crime and keep kids safe. Send kids home before they can get into trouble — the reasoning goes — and they won’t get into mischief at all.
That may be. But police already have the ability to contact juveniles who arouse their suspicions. The curfew would go one step further by making it a violation for teenagers to be out, unsupervised, even for something as innocent as stopping at a fast-food restaurant after a game or a school dance.
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Criminalization of such harmless behavior seems heavy-handed to us, though San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deb Linden assures us the curfew is not intended to be a “gotcha” kind of law.
Police could use discretion, she said — and would most likely not ticket a group of 16- and 17-year-olds having a late-night meal at Taco Bell, though they may advise them to go straight home.
That’s a relief, but it also raises a fresh concern. If a curfew ordinance is on the books at all, it should be uniformly applied. Otherwise, it’s going to leave the city open to accusations of harassing young people on the basis of appearance, race, dress, demeanor you name it.
We’re concerned, too, about the many exceptions written into the ordinance. For example, minors get a pass if they are going to or returning from a private place; running an errand for a parent or “responsible adult”; going to or from or attending a school, religious or recreational activity; or working or going to or from work. Such exceptions had to be included so that the ordinance could hold up in court, but the net effect is both watered-down and confusing.
All that said, we would be willing to set aside our reservations if we saw clear evidence of need for a curfew.
San Luis Obispo hasn’t experienced a spike in juvenile crimes occurring late at night. Last year, there were 20 minors younger than 18 arrested between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.; the year before, there were 23 arrests.
Nor is there documentation — aside from a couple of anecdotal references — that unsupervised minors who are out alone, late at night, are being injured or victimized in alarming numbers.
And finally, we could find no compelling statistics from other local jurisdictions to indicate that curfews are an effective deterrent or that they’re even used much.
San Luis Obispo County, for example, didn’t record a single curfew violation last year, and we suspect many teens and their parents may not even realize that a curfew exists in the county.
Bottom line: We commend the San Luis Obispo police administration for wanting to do all it can to keep minors safe, but we aren’t convinced a curfew is the way to do that.
Before moving forward with final adoption, we strongly urge the San Luis Obispo City Council to re-examine whether a curfew would be an effective tool and, if so, how it would be applied.
We would hate to see a law placed on the books because it might theoretically keep kids out of harm’s way, but in reality would wind up turning good kids into lawbreakers.