by Peter Gauvin
Saying they are confident police will use the law judiciously, Palo Alto City Council members Monday adopted a youth curfew ordinance in response to concerns over increasing gang activity.
However, the ordinance, which was adopted on a split vote of 6-2, is somewhat watered down from its original form, which stipulated that minors stay off streets and out of public places after 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends.
Supporting the ordinance were council members Ron Andersen, Joe Huber, Liz Kniss, Dick Rosenbaum, Micki Schneider and Lanie Wheeler. Voting against it were Jean McCown and Joe Simitian.
The hours of the pilot ordinance adopted, which will be reviewed after six months, were pushed back to 11 p.m. weekdays and 1 a.m. weekends for anyone younger than 18.
On the recommendation of Council member Huber, the law includes a sunset clause that means it will go out of existence on Oct. 31, 1995, little more than a year after its effective date. The law will go into effect Sept. 7, 31 days from its second reading at the Council Aug. 8.
The penalty for a first citation would be an infraction in all cases, instead of an infraction or a misdemeanor, as originally proposed. Infractions typically carry fines of about $100, so the Council directed City Attorney Ariel Calonne to explore community service as the preferred means of restitution. Misdemeanors carry fines of $500 and up and up to six months in jail, Calonne said.
While the curfew will be going into effect, the Council directed that city staff work with the Youth Council, the Human Relations Commission, and parent/teacher groups on developing pro-active measures to address youth violence and gang activity.
The city attorney will also be studying the use of nuisance abatement laws provided by the state that allow cities to pursue abatement of specific properties where repeated law enforcement problems occur. Such a law could be used to target the house on Addison Avenue that is reputed to be the headquarters of the "A-Street Gang."
The curfew law was passed despite arguments by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and others that it may be unconstitutional. Many cities, including San Jose and Oakland, have enacted similar ordinances to deal with violent behavior, Police Chief Chris Durkin noted.
In three hours of debate, speakers argued that the law is needed to quell gang activity and keep kids safe while others said it unjustly criminalizes all youth for the misdeeds of very few.
"If this is a targeted program target it at the people (causing the problem)," said Leora Hanser, a high school student and member of the Youth Council.
Vice Mayor Simitian called it a "classic balancing act between individual rights and community rights" and said in this case the benefit to the community is not enough to warrant the damage to individual rights.
"Most importantly, we are talking about an ordinance that criminalizes behavior that is not inherently anti-social, harmful or destructive," Simitian said.
He and Council member McCown urged that alternatives be explored before an ordinance or other legal measures are instituted.
But Council member Andersen, a high school teacher, said he did not believe the curfew would impact his students negatively. Moreover, he said the Council should support the police department's request that the curfew is needed as an enforcement tool. "I am certain that it will be used judiciously," he said.
Council member Wheeler said there is still a very broad range of allowed activities for youth after curfew hours. "The good kids will be able to do all the things they've been able to do for years," she said.
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