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Curfew, constitutions face off in court today

One Saturday last year, police found a 17-year-old in a neighborhood at 1 a.m. The girl was charged with violating Pinellas Park's curfew for the second time.

A few months later, a 14-year-old and his 8-year-old brother were stopped as they returned home from the 24-hour Wal-Mart.

They also were accused of violating the juvenile curfew a second time.

Today, those children will argue that Pinellas Park's curfew is unconstitutional and that they never should have been stopped.

The Pinellas County branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the girl, says the curfew violates a child's right to equal protection, due process and privacy as granted by the Florida and U.S. constitutions.

The curfew also violates freedoms of speech, assembly, association and religion, say court documents filed by the ACLU.

Dudley Clapp, of the Pinellas County Public Defender's office, which is representing the brothers, agreed the ordinance is unconstitutional for those reasons.

Police can use the ordinance to selectively enforce it against some kids, but not others, Clapp said. It also imposes stiffer penalties against juveniles than state law permits.

Ed Foreman, who represents Pinellas Park, said the ordinance is constitutional. But for now he is keeping the reasons secret.

"While I would very much like to provide whatever help I can in regard to your article . . . I feel it is more important to provide good representation to the city and not disclose the contents of any argument or brief prior to oral argument before the court on Wednesday afternoon," Foreman wrote in a letter dated April 27.

He wrote, "I don't wish for the other side to read about my strategy, case law and legal approach prior to the hearing on this matter."

The hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. today before Circuit Judge Peter Ramsberger.

The curfew, which was approved last May, basically bans any resident or non-resident younger than 18 from being in a public place between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays or from midnight to 6 a.m. on holidays and weekends.

The penalties are steep and apply to parents as well as children.

A written warning is the penalty for a first violation. Fines up to $500 or imprisonment for up to six months or both are the penalties for subsequent violations.

Since the Pinellas Park police began enforcing the curfew last June, 474 youths have been cited, with 49 repeat offenders. The youths have been 7 to 17 years old, police statistics say.

Those statistics satisfy some Pinellas Park officials.

"I believe that it has proven itself in our particular case in our city," Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler said. "I believe fully in it. . . . I'm still in favor of it 100 percent."

Other cities also favor it.

Council member Jay Lasita has urged St. Petersburg to adopt a juvenile curfew and is seeking support in the neighborhoods.

Kenneth City adopted an updated curfew soon after Pinellas Park's went into effect.

Largo passed a curfew in February but granted a grace period to inform kids about it. Enforcement began April 1.

Largo police Chief Jerry Bloechle said it's too soon to know if the curfew is working. However, officers on the midnight shift are seeing fewer youths on the streets.

Thus far, Bloechle knows of no one who has been cited for a second or third violation.

"It seems to be voluntary compliance is the way it's going," he said.

One surprise, he said, was a parent who called and asked that police issue his child a warning to clear up an argument over curfew times.

"That was something I really didn't expect," Bloechle said.

What Bloechle does expect is challenges such as the one Pinellas Park faces. He's keeping an eye on that fight because Largo's ordinance is similar.

_ Staff writer Sharon Tubbs contributed to this report.