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Appeals court restores youth curfew

(ran West, Beach editions)

The court reverses a ruling spurred when three youths and the ACLU fought the curfew ordinance two years ago.

One moment Tiffani Macfarlane was standing in a friend's front yard. The next, she was handcuffed and plopped in the back of a police cruiser.

Her crime: Being outside after 11 p.m. in Pinellas Park.

Because she was 17, that simple act violated the city's juvenile curfew.

That was October 1997. Now Macfarlane is almost 20, an age where she never again needs to worry about curfews.

But she still worries about them in general. And about Pinellas Park's in particular.

"Even though it does not affect me now, I do not think it's right," Macfarlane said Thursday. "Who's to tell a kid they're supposed to be home if their mom allows them out?"

Her mother agreed the curfew was wrong. So Macfarlane, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the curfew's constitutionality. Since then, the case has been wandering through the court system. A lower court agreed with Macfarlane. An appeals court disagreed. Now, the case appears headed to the state Supreme Court.

The decision to fight the ordinance came as a result of the treatment Macfarlane said she received when she was caught for her second violation of the curfew.

Macfarlane said she was standing in a friend's front yard. The officer, Tracey Schofield, reported at the time that Macfarlane was "standing near two vehicles parked on the roadway in front of a residential neighborhood of Pinellas Park at 1 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11."

Schofield, she said, went around asking the kids their ages until he got to Macfarlane. He remembered her from the time he had handed her a warning four months earlier. All he said was, "I know you're not allowed," Macfarlane remembered. He asked them no other questions, not even quizzing them to find out if they came under one of the ordinance's many exceptions, she said.

"It was just, "I'm big, I'm bad, I'm going to show you how much power I have over you,' " she said. "He was trying to scare us."

After that, Macfarlane, an honor student with two jobs who'd never been in trouble, was handcuffed. Macfarlane said she was put in the back of a squad car for about an hour until Schofield could reach Macfarlane's mother and discover she knew where her daughter was. Then, he let Macfarlane go home by herself.

"My mom was so outraged over the handcuffing," Macfarlane said. "That's why we really started it, because of the way he treated me."

The decision to challenge the ordinance was popular, she said.

"I didn't have one kid say, "Why'd you do this?' Or one parent," she said. "It was all positive."

The most irritating thing since then, she said, was Pinellas Park's failure to take down the signs saying the city was covered by a juvenile curfew.

"For two years, they were falsely saying they had a curfew," Macfarlane said.

As she would drive by one of the signs, she would "cringe. I'd want to stop my car every time and get out and take it down myself."

Since then, the incident has become "my all-time funny story," she said.

But it's a funny story with serious issues ranging from parental rights to children's rights to crime control.

Pinellas Park's curfew generally prohibits youths younger than 18 from being in a public place or business unaccompanied by an adult between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays or between 12:01 a.m. and 6 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays.

The penalties are high for both parents and children.

A written warning is the penalty for a first violation. Juveniles and their parents can be fined up to $500, imprisoned for up to six months or both for subsequent violations.

Macfarlane and the ACLU were not the only ones to think parental and children's rights were more important than any crime control that might come from the curfew.

Two other youths also challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance with the help of the Pinellas County Public Defender's Office.

One of them was a then-14-year-old boy. The other was his then-8-year-old brother. They were stopped when returning from shopping at Wal-Mart.

The youths were successful in their initial challenge. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Peter Ramsberger ruled that Pinellas Park's juvenile curfew ordinance was unconstitutional.

The curfew, Ramsberger ruled, usurped parental authority by forcing youths from public places at certain times even if they had parental permission to be there. That denies parents the right to decide whether their children are responsible enough to be out late at night.

But Wednesday, an appeals court disagreed. In a 2-1 opinion, the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned Ramsberger's order and reinstated the Pinellas Park curfew.

The two judges said Pinellas Park has an interest in reducing juvenile crime. That interest, they said, overrides any rights parents may have to allow their children to stay out late at night. It also outweighs any rights juveniles may have to come and go as they please.

City officials say they will begin enforcing the curfew as soon as possible. The ACLU says it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

But one of the appeals court judges agreed with the kids.

Parents have a "fundamental right" to make parental decisions without governmental influence, wrote Judge Stevan Northcutt in his dissent.

Northcutt dismissed the city's arguments that the curfew enhanced parental control over children or that it prevented juvenile crime or child victimization.

"I reject outright the oft-made suggestion that ordinances such as this one enhance parents' control of their children, for such falsely implies that parents have some choice in the matter," Northcutt wrote. "To the contrary, this ordinance prescribes what parents must or must not permit or direct their children to do, on pain of criminal prosecution."

As for the question of preventing juvenile crime, Northcutt wrote, "I question whether interning our youth effectively serves that interest."

Youths who intend to commit crimes will not be stopped by a curfew, the judge said.

"Ironically then, the ordinance likely has its greatest impact on law-abiding youths, a result which bears no logical connection to the purpose of preventing juvenile crime," Northcutt wrote.

Macfarlane agreed with that. In the lower court, Pinellas Park had produced statistics showing that juvenile crime had dropped after the curfew was put into place.

But, she noted, in the two years since the curfew was declared unconstitutional, crime in general has been decreasing.

Had the curfew been in effect, she said, the police would have been saying, "See, it's the curfew." Yet, the curfew obviously has nothing to do with it, Macfarlane said.

It's doubtful the Pinellas Park City Council will buy that argument. That means the curfew will likely go into effect again just in time for summer school vacation.

Macfarlane has advice for anyone caught.

"Fight it," she said. "Say something. Ask questions. (Ask) "What are the exceptions to this law?' . . . There were so many stupid (exceptions) in it, you could have gotten away with anything."