WEST PALM BEACH (CN) - West Palm Beach's downtown curfew for minors - 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends - violates the Constitution, a youth rights group says. Led by 16-year-old Jeffrey Nadel, the National Youth Rights Association of Southeast Florida says it's the first youth-led group to sue a city for violating minors' right to peaceably assemble.
In August 2007, West Palm Beach joined a majority of municipalities nationwide that have enacted minor curfews.
A city spokesman said that groups of young people had begun to pose safety issues in the posh Cityplace commercial district: fights were breaking out, and gang members were hanging around the operatic movie theater. The city saw the curfew as a way to prevent theft and violence.
But Nadel, of Boca Raton, says the curfew is broad and ineffectual, and that it simply pushes crimes to other areas.
"If someone is intent on robbing a car or committing a violent act, they aren't going to care about some curfew ordinance," Nadel said in an interview.
"[The curfew] simply punishes youth who are exercising their right to assemble. It curtails our essential civil liberties in the name of stopping crime."
His group has sued the city in Palm Beach County Court and in Federal Court.
The group's attorney, Barry Silver, said the curfew could be the result of lobbying efforts by businesses in the ritzy downtown district.
If the city were genuinely interested in reducing youth violence, Silver said, it would have extended the curfew area beyond the commercial zones in Cityplace and nearby Clematis Street.
"The mayor [Lois Frankel] is very tight with the business community. She listens to what they have to say," Silver said.
The curfew area, Cityplace, has undergone a $500 million urban renewal project. Upscale bars and luxury apartments occupy a street where rundown properties and low-income housing once stood. But just blocks away, tattered concrete buildings lie abandoned in one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the county, plagued by gang violence.
Nadel sees the curfew as another step in the gentrification of downtown. He says he has seen discriminatory practice in its enforcement: patrolling officers primarily targeting minorities for curfew warnings.
The city denies that the curfew caters to wealthy residents and downtown businesses. The city spokesman said local youth gravitated toward the thriving new district, which created a spike in thefts and violence.
"They wanted to be where the nice cars were, where everybody else was. We took away the pot of gold," the spokesman said. He added that police tend to hand out warnings before issuing fines to minors out after curfew.
On the anniversary of the curfew's enactment, the police announced that nighttime arrests of minors in the downtown district had been reduced by 86 percent.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show that in 2008, the year after the institution of the curfew, the minor arrest rate dropped by about 25 percent compared with the two preceding years.
"The city is in a position to flash numbers, but you have to look at the facts behind the statistics. The reality is [that] true criminals are not going to be deterred," Nadel said.
The curfew ordinance was part of larger effort to control crime, the city spokesman said. In the late '90s, West Palm Beach had the second highest per capita rate of violent crimes and thefts in the country among municipalities with populations under 100,000.
Since the Cityplace redevelopment project was completed in 2001, the rate of larceny, car thefts, and burglaries has been reduced by more than 46 percent, according to state statistics.
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