The youth curfew and anti-loitering bills — not “either or” but “neither nor”

Dear County Council members,

The Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition joins a great number of county residents and organizations urging the Council not to pass the expedited youth curfew proposal.  We also urge you not to introduce or support a new curfew bill not requiring 6 votes to pass.

We agree with the reasons you’ve heard before:

  • it’s ineffective: countless studies find no discernible effect of curfews on crime or even youth crime;
  • it’s unnecessary. Crime is down!  — and we already have laws to deal with disorderly conduct;
  • and it’s unfair — it punishes many good young people for the feared misdeeds of a few bad ones.

Unfortunately, the proposed alternative – Councilman Andrews’s anti-loitering/’prowling’ bill promises no better.  We hope you’ll decide not to see this as an “either or” choice, but a “neither nor” one.

Rather than being a better alternative to the youth curfew, the loitering bill is separately but equally ineffective, separately but equally unnecessary, and separately but equally unfair:

  • because all a stopped person must do is concoct an explanation for the officer,
  • because crime is down, and we already have a law against disorderly conduct,
  • and because (as the ACLU of Maryland puts it) people simply have the right to walk and linger in public places.

Some may think a well-intentioned loitering law won’t be so bad.  Like the youth curfew, perhaps it seems like more of a discretionary “tool” than something that will frequently result in an arrest charge.

But that’s a problem, too.  Because it’s not just arrests that matter — it’s also the many unnecessary, humiliating stops that this law will (pretend to) authorize—all without suspicion of a specific crime.

And let’s please be honest with ourselves: those humiliations will happen far more often to some of us than to others.

We’d like to believe that restrictions of freedom of movement—whether as a curfew or as an anti-loitering law—are un-American. But they aren’t; they were a big way African Americans were oppressed before the Civil War — and then again during the long, vicious reign of Jim Crow. The 14th Amendment was passed in no small part to ensure that no one’s 4th Amendment rights could be infringed.  We should not be undoing that in 21st century Montgomery County, even unintentionally. We’re better than that.

We don’t want gang fights or 7-11 robberies either. But again – as Councilman Andrews himself often points out: crime is down! If we’re worried about unsupervised youth with time on their hands, let’s create programs they can take part in.  If we’re worried about specific places or times of day, let’s set up substations, let’s reassign police.  If we’re worried about crime, let’s put our money where our mouth is by paying police the salaries and benefits they deserve for the jobs they do.

Meanwhile, though, and above all: let’s keep our rights intact.  Police should always have to have probable cause to investigate someone for a specific crime.  That’s both a matter of our rights and also, just practically, a matter of police not wasting their time or taxpayer dollars on hunches – now to be redefined as a “justifiable alarms” or snap evaluations of what a “law abiding person” might or might not do.

Let’s focus on fighting real crime, instead of wasting time on unjustified fears or vague apprehensions.
No to the curfew.
No to the loitering/”prowling” bill.
Yes to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Thomas Nephew, for the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

EDITS, 11/9: some typos; “something that will frequently result in a” for “a frequent.”

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4 Responses to The youth curfew and anti-loitering bills — not “either or” but “neither nor”

  1. Woody Brosnan says:

    Woody Brosnan, vice chair of Safe Silver Spring, said,
    I wanted to share with your group my report on today’s work session by the Public Safety Committee on the loitering bill:

    Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger pleaded with the County Council’s Public Safety Committee Thursday not to pass a bad loitering law as an alternative to the teen curfew proposal.
    “I don’t think this is a better idea. Let the curfew proposal stand or fall on its own, but don’t try to substitute something else,” said Manger.
    Committee Chairman Phil Andrews has held up action on the curfew to pursue a loitering and prowling bill although he has promised to vote on both on Dec. 1.
    The curfew would last from 11 to 5 a.m. on school nights and midnight to 5 a.m. on other days and apply to those 17 and under unless they were working, in transit, or at school events, concerts, sporting events, movies or under some other exceptions. Violators could be cited for a $100 fine if they refuse an order to go home.
    The loitering bill would apply to all persons at all hours and allow the police to arrest someone who in the judgment of the police remains “in a public place or establishment at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding persons under circumstances that warrant a justifiable and reasonable alarm or immediate concern for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity.”
    “I think it is a civil liberties’ nightmare, particularly when we get into a discussion of what a law-abiding citizen does,” said Councilmember Marc Elrich.
    The bill offers guidelines to police, such as if a suspect runs or tries to conceal something on his person.
    Robert Drummer, a senior legislative attorney for the Council, said similar laws have been struck down in some states and upheld in others. He suggested the Council make a policy decision and then let the courts rule.
    Councilmember Roger Berliner said he was not comfortable voting on a law with constitutional questions and suggested one remedy would be to make loitering merely a civil violation, like the curfew, and not a crime.
    County Attorney Ed Lattner responded there would still be constitutional issues even with a civil anti-loitering law, including infringements on the freedom of assembly.
    (Curfew laws have been upheld, including in the federal circuit that includes Maryland, only because they apply to minors.)
    Manger said he supported a curfew because it was the only legislative fix they could think of to how to disperse unruly groups of teens late at night before there is a fight or damage to property.
    “I can’t just arrest someone on the suspicion they are up to no good,” added Manger
    Manger said there are other measures to protect areas of the county but all “come with a price tag.”
    Andrews said the curfew is not “free” either.
    “It does restrict the freedom of overwhelmingly innocent people and it’s intrusive and it’s not free,” said Andrews.
    County Executive Ike Leggett also spoke out against the proposed loitering bill in an interview broadcast on the county cable channel.
    “It does not address the people (teens) coming from DC and Prince George’s County. It applies across the board at any point in time. This kind of law is beneath Montgomery County,” said Leggett.


  2. Thanks, Mr. Brosnan, I really appreciate your detailed report. Those are a number of welcome developments re the loitering bill.


  3. Pingback: MCCRC’s Thomas Nephew testifies against loitering/prowling bill 35-11 | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

  4. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Testimony against a proposed county loitering bill

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