It’s difficult for me to admit this, but I feel I must: I have a criminal past.
In June of 1996, I was arrested by the Yankton Police Department and thrown in jail. I was 17 years old.
At first, I thought my offense was watching the dumb Hollywood summer blockbuster “Independence Day.”
But I came to learn that my real crime had been violating Yankton’s juvenile curfew — something I, nor my parents, even knew existed until that night.
Here are the facts of the case as I recall them:
A couple friends and I decided to catch the late showing of “Independence Day” at the Carmike Cinema located in the Yankton Mall.
When we came out, we discovered that a couple of other friends had also attended, so we were in the parking lot catching up and discussing the film. I would guess that within 10 minutes of getting out of the movie, a handful of police cars came in the various parking lot entrances at high speed. We were curious as to what major crime had transpired that required such manpower and urgency. Did someone have drugs? Was there a fight?
Soon, an officer approached our group and asked us our ages. We were told we could not leave.
After some time, we were finally informed that we would be going to jail for curfew violation. We were handcuffed and hauled away in a cop car.
I’m not sure how many juveniles were arrested in the mall parking lot that night, but several of us were processed and locked up together in a drunk tank. We were not given the opportunity to call our parents.
Fortunately, one friend in our group was 18 years old. After we were arrested, he went home and his parents contacted the parents of those of us who were in police custody.
It was perhaps three in the morning before my mother was able to get me out of jail.
Our parents attended the eventual court hearing and there were some pleas to the judge that it was ridiculous that kids were being arrested for talking in a parking lot after spending money in the community to watch a movie. There was a meeting with the police chief. There was a letter published in the Press & Dakotan. However, at the end of the day, the judge found us guilty, and we were fined.
For many years, I had a very negative view of law enforcement that stemmed from this experience.
I had been detained, arrested and thrown in jail simply for standing in a parking lot and being under the age of 18. I felt an injustice had been perpetrated.
It was only after I became a journalist and visited regularly with police officers that I got over my jaundiced view of law enforcement.
Yankton still has a “Nocturnal Curfew for Minors” in its ordinances.
(c) Minors aged fourteen (14) and below. Subject to a reasonable defense, it shall be unlawful for a minor fourteen (14) years of age or younger to be in a traditional public forum or in a private establishment in the city on Sunday through Thursday between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. of the following day and on Friday and Saturday between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. the following day.
(d) Minors aged fifteen (15) and above. Subject to a reasonable defense, it shall be unlawful for a minor fifteen (15) years of age or older to be in a traditional public forum or in a private establishment in the city on Sunday through Thursday between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. of the following day and on Friday and Saturday between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. of the following day.
Reasonable defenses to subsections (c) and (d). The only “reasonable defenses” to a violation of subsection (c) and (d) are:
(1) The minor is accompanied by his or her parent;
(2) The minor is on an emergency errand directed by his or her parent;
(3) The predominant reason for the violation is that the minor is exercising First Amendment rights protected by the United States Constitution, such as freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, and the right of assembly;
(4) The minor is not a resident of Yankton and is in a motor vehicle involved in interstate commerce; or
(5) The minor is traveling directly between his or her dwelling house and a place of employment, church, school, or a function supervised by parents and sponsored by the city, civic organization, or another similar entity that takes responsibility for the minor.
The stated purpose of the ordinance is also included: The Yankton Board of City Commissioners specifically finds that establishment of a nocturnal curfew for minors within the city limits is within the best interests of the city for the following reasons: (1) to reduce the number of juvenile crimes victims; (2) to reduce accidents involving juveniles; (3) to reduce additional time for officers in the field; (4) to reduce juvenile peer pressure to stay out late; and (5) to assist parents in control of their children.
Studies of juvenile curfew laws provide inconclusive evidence of their effectiveness. Some have found that they lower crime rates, while others have shown no impact.
In Yankton, there were 30 curfew arrests in 2014, and 53 in 2013. There were 239 total juvenile arrests in Yankton during 2014 and 227 in 2013.
I’ll lay my cards out on the table: I have a serious problem with criminalizing all of our youth between certain hours of the day. If they are engaged in vandalism, stealing, an assault, etc., arrest them for a crime. But what good comes of arresting a 16-year-old because he or she is walking in the park or talking with friends following a movie after 11 p.m. — as I know from experience does happen.
Nationally, most of the crimes perpetrated by school-aged youth are committed in the three hours following the school day, so it seems to me that is where our efforts would be better placed. This may involve a community-oriented policing component that isn’t currently in place, but I think community investment in the proposed expansion of the Yankton’s Boys’ and Girls’ Club would be one of the most logical answers if we feel there is a juvenile crime problem during the after-school hours.
Do parents in Yankton depend on the municipal curfew to enforce their own curfews at home? Do you feel it impacts juvenile crime? Did you even know there is a juvenile curfew in Yankton?
I’d be interested in hearing thoughts on this subject. Is the curfew something that the Yankton City Commission should explore with community members and law enforcement to determine whether it is necessary? Are there alternative measures that could be used that don’t cast such a wide net and criminalize all of our youth?
The 17-year-old in me won’t leave me alone until I address this subject with the community. I hope he isn’t being unreasonable.