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Public-Interest Groups Take on Los Angeles Curfew Law

By Bobbie K. Ross, Esq. – June 18, 2012

On February 29, 2012, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to amend the city’s student curfew law. The action came after years of effort led by Public Counsel, the Community Rights Campaign (CRC), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California. The curfew law at issue, Los Angeles Municipal Code section 45.04, made it

unlawful for any minor . . . to be present in or upon the public streets, highways, roads, alleys, parks, playgrounds, or other public grounds, public places, public buildings, places or amusement and eating places, vacant lots or any place open to the public during the hours of the same day when the school . . . is in session[.]

The law allowed police to ticket students who were late but on school grounds as they made their way to class. The ordinance led to expensive tickets for students who were late—initial violations required payment of a $250 fine, which went up drastically on second and third violations—but those tickets appeared to be serving a purpose contrary to what was intended. Instead of deterring students from being late, a number of students thought it better not to show up to school at all, and risk the citation and fine, than to be late to class. In addition, the tickets required students to show up in court, on weekdays, and have a parent or guardian accompany them to court as well—causing that parent or guardian to miss a day of work.

In September 2011, Los Angeles City Council member Tony Cardenas submitted a motion that noted the following, among other things:

Given the fact that there are dozens of reasons why students are late or truant, ranging from emotional and mental health problems, school environment, academic challenges, special education needs, economic pressures, substance abuse, physical or emotional abuse in the home, and lack of adequate transportation, revising and/or ending LAMC Section 45.04 would further remove financial hardships on families and help students obtain the education and guidance necessary to become productive residents of Los Angeles. In light of the most recent research confirming that students who appear in juvenile court are almost four times as likely to drop out of school—which is associated with a number of negative outcomes, including unemployment and increased criminal involvement—minimizing court involvement of youth by instead connecting them to resources will substantially benefit the students, the community and the City.

The motion, seconded by council member Bernard Parks, moved for a report from the City Attorney about amendment of the truancy ordinance.

Cardenas’s motion built on the internal directive issued by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in April of that year, which asked LAPD ticketing officers not to cite students during the first hour of classes and to help students get back to class.

Amendment of the curfew law required years of hard work on the part of council member Cardenas, Public Counsel, the CRC, and the ACLU of Southern California, as well as other community leaders such as Judge Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles Juvenile Court. Judge Nash issued new court guidelines in January 2012 to eliminate fines and unnecessary time in court for students who receive tickets for violating the ordinance. Another part of the groups’ strategy in attacking the ordinance was to request data regarding the tickets issued by LAPD pursuant to the ordinance.

According to the data, the majority of the tickets were issued to minority students and students in underprivileged areas. This is not entirely surprising considering the U.S. Department of Education’s recent report that African-American students are more than three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

The current amended version of the ordinance should help to make these numbers less disparate. The amended version of the ordinance does not mandate a fine or court appearance if the student provides proof of participation in a community or school resource-based program, such as tutoring, mentoring, credit recovery, an afterschool program, or a Teen/Peer Court. The LAPD is also required to publish biannual statistics regarding the number of minors cited under the ordinance, along with the location and time of the citation and the age, ethnicity, race, and gender of the minors cited. It is hoped that this newly added requirement will help city officials and the Los Angeles legal community rally together to address any discriminatory enforcement of the ordinance as soon as a pattern is discovered. The amended ordinance also prohibits police from issuing truancy tickets in or around school grounds and during the first hour of classes.

An extended timeline of the efforts that went into getting the curfew law amended is available on the CRC’s website. The Los Angeles City Council’s online file concerning the amendment process makes the council’s documents available.

Keywords: Los Angeles student curfew, truancy ordinance, school truancy fees

Bobbie K. Ross, Esq., practices in civil rights and constitutional litigation, municipal law, legislative advisement, and criminal law in Los Angeles. She is an assistant editor for the Diversity Section of the Pro Bono & Public Interest Litigation Committee newsletter.

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