Washington Supreme Court Overturns Sumner Juvenile Curfew Law

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The Washington Supreme Court today struck down the City of Sumner's curfew ordinance, ruling that the law is unconstitutionally vague. The American Civil Liberties Union represents the Sumner parent who challenged the law. The parent had been fined for violating the curfew in 1999 after he allowed his teenage son to go to a neighborhood convenience store at night.

"The government should not make it against the law for a person simply to be outside. Curfew laws wrongly punish the behavior of law-abiding citizens and interfere with parents' rights to decide how to supervise their children," said ACLU Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.

The ACLU challenged Sumner's juvenile curfew on behalf of Thomas Walsh, who objects to the law. Walsh was found liable under Sumner's curfew ordinance for "allowing" his teenage son to go to a neighborhood convenience store during curfew hours on a summer night in 1999. The law prohibits youths under 18 from being in public places or businesses after 11 p.m. on weekdays and 12 a.m. on weekends.

The ordinance includes several exemptions, including juveniles who are "on an errand as directed by his or her parent …" However, when police stopped and detained Walsh's son, they refused to accept his statement that he was on an errand with his father's permission. When Walsh picked up his son at the police station, he confirmed that he had given his son permission to go to the store. Nevertheless, the police issued him a curfew citation.

In the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Alexander, the court found Sumner's curfew unconstitutionally vague for two main reasons. The ordinance says it is unlawful for a juvenile to "remain" in a public place, which is defined as "linger or stay." The court found these terms too vague to apply in practice, and that they give police arbitrary power to stop individuals that they don't like. The court also found that the law's exemptions are just as vague as the main part of the ordinance. As the Walsh case shows, the exemption for sending children on errands is too vague to be applied fairly.

The Court strongly cautioned cities against attempting to pass curfew ordinances by simply using different language from Sumner's overturned law, pointing out that curfews are highly susceptible to being enforced in an arbitrary manner. As the majority opinion said, "We recognize that it may be difficult for a city to draft a curfew ordinance that is not unconstitutionally vague. The primary reason for that, as we pointed out in Pullman, is that curfews attempt to make activities that are normally considered innocent, unlawful, i.e., walking, driving, going to the store."

The Sumner decision reinforces earlier state court rulings on curfews. In 1998 the Washington Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a decision overturning the City of Bellingham's curfew law. The action let stand a unanimous 1997 ruling by the Washington Court of Appeals in which it held that the curfew law "infringes on a minor's fundamental freedom of movement and expression" and is unconstitutionally vague. The case stemmed from a 1993 incident in which a 15-year-old boy suffered a broken arm when a police officer sought to enforce the curfew against him. The state supreme court also found curfew ordinances unconstitutional in 1967 (City of Seattle v. Drew) and 1973 (City of Seattle v. Pullman).

Attorney Jennifer Shaw of the firm Aoki and Sakamoto handled the case for the ACLU.

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