Egg Harbor Township is grappling with what to do with a curfew a judge deemed unconstitutional earlier this year, a decision that could have ramifications for other towns looking to keep minors off the streets at night.
The current ordinance, which was adopted in 1978, prohibits minors under the age of 18 from loitering in public places or vacant lots between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In April, a Superior Court judge ordered the township to rescind the ordinance after a complaint was filed by the parents of three minors who violated the curfew. Township Committee is expected to vote to repeal the ordinance later this month. It has already stopped enforcing the curfew.
But the question of what to do with errant minors remains.
“Without a curfew ordinance, we can’t even protect the children from themselves or other types of predators that may be out there,” Township Administrator Peter Miller said. “That’s our major concern: that people will be at risk.”
And the decision could put other municipalities’ curfews at risk of being struck down, Miller said.
In his preliminary opinion letter, Judge William C. Todd referenced a 2001 decision that struck down a similar ordinance from West New York in Hudson County on the grounds that its vagueness encroached on the rights of parents to allow their children to attend civic, religious or social functions alone at night.
“It is unclear to me just how a municipality would go about enacting a meaningful curfew ordinance while allowing for the preservation of the parents’ right to permit children to be engaged in (these) types of activities,” he wrote.
Egg Harbor Township’s ordinance includes exemptions for emergencies and for minors returning from work, school, supervised social meetings and other civic, religious or school-sponsored events.
Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said he didn’t think the existing ordinance was unreasonable, but the township has sought to help of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities in drafting a new curfew.
Police often used discretion in enforcing the curfew, he said.
“If we thought there was a crime being prevented or (the minors were) creating a nuisance, we would charge them under the ordinance,” he said. “In a lot of cases, they would just call the parents and tell them to come.”
Police Chief Michael Morris said the repeal will diminish his department’s “community caretaker” role.
“The repeal of the curfew ordinance has effectively eliminated a valuable law-enforcement tool that empowers a police officer to protect juveniles from predatorial victimization and prevent crimes from occurring by detaining potential juvenile offenders,” he said.
Matthew Weng, a staff attorney with the League of Municipalities, said it’s hard to say how many towns have similar curfews that could be challenged.
After studying how the courts have handled various ordinances, Weng said the solution may be to add an exception for minors with parental permission to be out past curfew.
“I think that’s what the court is most concerned about, and it has to be a pretty wide exception,” he said. “Parental permission for almost any reason has to be a valid excuse for violating a curfew.”
Neighboring Hamilton Township also has a curfew on its books. For children under age 14, the curfew is between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. For those under 18, it’s between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The curfew includes exceptions for emergencies and extracurricular activities but does not include a mechanism allowing for parental permission.
Miller said it might take legislative action to ensure curfews are constitutional. If that’s the case, he said, it may be a long time before the township can enforce another one.
“What concerns me with 15- and 16-year-olds out at 1:30 in the morning is that something’s going to happen to them,” he said. “They’re going to get abducted or kidnapped or beat up ... or they’re going to get themselves in trouble.”
EHT Committeewoman Laura Pfrommer, who raised two children, ages 22 and 25, said curfews are a necessary public-safety tool. The township needs to develop a new policy that fits the requirements of the law, she said.
“It came as a surprise to a lot of us that this one wasn’t (constitutional),” she said. “We want to make sure this is strong because you don’t want anything you’ve crafted thrown out in the courts.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
Follow @wjmckelvey on Twitter