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Largo curfew proposal stirs spirited debate

Emotions flared during a meeting Tuesday as city commissioners voiced their opinions on a proposed curfew ordinance that would make it a crime for people younger than 18 to be out past midnight.

Commissioner Marty Shelby said he would not mince words on his stance that the ordinance is a breach of rights. "If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it's my opinion that this ordinance is just another brick on the road to hell."

Harriet Crozier saw things differently. "A 13-year-old, a 12-year-old, a 14-year-old, oughta have their fannies in bed," she said. "If I can do something to save a life . . . I sure as shootin' am gonna do it!"

The commission did not vote on the ordinance and decided to discuss it further and schedule a public hearing in coming weeks.

The debate came after Madeline Koceja, an investigator with the Largo Police Department, showed the commission statistics of increased juvenile arrests.

The ordinance would prohibit juveniles from being out between midnight and 6 a.m. and forbid those who have been expelled or suspended from school from being in public places during the day. Pinellas Park has a similar ordinance.

Youths would get a warning after the first violation. Subsequent violations could lead to fines of up to $500 and imprisonment for up to six months. Parents could also be charged. Exceptions would be made for teens who are with an adult or who are traveling to or from an excused activity, such as a job, an emergency or a school-sponsored event.

Juvenile arrests have increased steadily each year from almost 500 arrests in 1994 to 785 in 1996. The department projects there will be more than 1,000 arrests by the end of this year, Koceja said.

"The ordinance is a tool that the Police Department needs," Koceja said. "Be assured that the officers will use this tool with respect for its purpose and with discretion."

Many crimes occur at night, Koceja said. The Police Department's computer data base, however, is not capable of tracking the number of juvenile crimes that are committed from midnight to 6 a.m., Koceja said.

Shelby was not pleased. "You are unable to provide statistics to back up your own assertions," he said.

Shelby proposed that the city host a symposium to address teen issues that might be causing increased criminal activity.

Crozier and Commissioner Jim Miles, however, said they were satisfied that the curfew is warranted. Of the symposium idea, Miles said, "I think that's the most asinine thing that can be done."