A Tale Of My Criminal Past (Which Leads To Questions About Yankton’s Juvenile Curfew Law)

BartSimpsonCriminalIt’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.
My crime?
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.
It states:
(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.

The Case For A More Transparent Yankton City Commission

What if I told you that the Yankton City Commission has spent almost exactly the same amount of time conducting meetings in public as it has in private this year?

It might sound hard to believe, but it’s true.

An examination of the available minutes for the Yankton City Commission in 2015 — which encompasses four meetings — reveals it has spent three hours, two minutes conducting its meetings in public. Meanwhile, it has convened executive sessions — or closed-door meetings — lasting a total of two hours, 42 minutes.

During 2014, the Yankton City Commission spent just more than 30 hours in regular session — and just more than 22 hours in executive session.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this indicates anything nefarious – and I am very sincere about that. I know the current commissioners to be good and honest people, and this issue is not about calling into question their integrity. There are legitimate reasons to hold executive sessions. The reasons listed for the four 2015 meetings are contractual and personnel matters.

However, I believe that elected officials and government employees need some measure of accountability for what goes on during these private meetings. Currently, South Dakota does not require that minutes or audio recordings be made of executive sessions.

The first thing I plan to introduce for consideration by the Yankton City Commission when I am sworn in May 11 is the adoption of an Iowa law that requires minutes and audio recordings of closed meetings.

During my time as a reporter covering local government, I found that the public was often bothered by the idea of boards going behind closed doors to discuss matters. It fueled speculation and distrust.

I think the Yankton City Commission — and government bodies across South Dakota, for that matter — could adopt this law that has been used in Iowa for some time and use it to reassure the public and promote transparency. Because the South Dakota Legislature is perennially reticent to enact open government laws, I believe we must take the lead at the local level.
If accusations of wrongdoing are made, there should be a record that can be reviewed by legal authorities to confirm or deny such accusations.

This can serve to protect elected representatives and government employees. It also encourages them to take seriously the limits placed upon executive sessions.

We have much to accomplish as a community, and the key to any good working relationship is trust.

I want to give Yankton residents as much reassurance as possible that their elected officials are conducting public business in public and, should we need to go behind closed doors, they can still hold us accountable.

As a community, we will also be able to hold our heads high as a beacon for open government in a state that is routinely considered among the worst in the nation when it comes to such laws.

Here are the two elements of the Iowa law that I am interested in adopting as policy for Yankton:

21.5 (1.j) — To discuss the purchase or sale of particular real estate only where premature disclosure could be reasonably expected to increase the price the governmental body would have to pay for that property or reduce the price the governmental body would receive for that property. The minutes and the audio recording of a session closed under this paragraph shall be available for public examination when the transaction discussed is completed.

21.5 (4) — A governmental body shall keep detailed minutes of all discussion, persons present, and action occurring at a closed session, and shall also audio record all of the closed session. The detailed minutes and audio recording of a closed session shall be sealed and shall not be public records open to public inspection. However, upon order of the court in an action to enforce this chapter, the detailed minutes and audio recording shall be unsealed and examined by the court in camera. The court shall then determine what part, if any, of the minutes should be disclosed to the party seeking enforcement of this chapter for use in that enforcement proceeding. In determining whether any portion of the minutes or recording shall be disclosed to such a party for this purpose, the court shall weigh the prejudicial effects to the public interest of the disclosure of any portion of the minutes or recording in question, against its probative value as evidence in an enforcement proceeding. After such a determination, the court may permit inspection and use of all or portions of the detailed minutes and audio recording by the party seeking enforcement of this chapter. A governmental body shall keep the detailed minutes and audio recording of any closed session for a period of at least one year from the date of that meeting, except as otherwise required by law.

Furthermore, Iowa Attorney General opinions have established:

A meeting may be closed under exemption (j) only when public discussion of the possible purchase or sale of particular real estate could be reasonably expected to increase the price demanded of that property or decrease the amount the government would receive in a sale.
The economic public interest that this exemption is intended to serve is clear. The exemption does not allow closed sessions for discussion of real estate in general. If a session is closed under this exemption, the records of that closed meeting must be made available for public examination when the transaction is completed or canceled.
Under Chapter 21.5(4) the minutes and tape recording of any closed session must be kept at least one year. If
more than a year should elapse between a meeting closed under Chapter
21.5(1)(j) and the completion of the real-estate transaction, the record of that closed session should be kept for a reasonable time after the completion of the transaction so it can be available for public examination.
I’ve been visiting with open government advocates in both South Dakota and Iowa about how this law could be adopted as City of Yankton policy. Preliminary discussions are that there is nothing preventing us from taking this step.
As a long-time advocate for more open government, this possibility has me genuinely excited. I look forward to discussing this matter with my peers in Yankton city government. Hopefully, I can convince them that this is a worthy action that makes our local government and residents winners.

What Is Your Vision For Yankton?

What is your vision for Yankton?

I was recently reading about Dubuque, Iowa, which is considerably larger than Yankton but offers us a good example of how to develop a community vision.

Dubuque Iowa

A photo of Dubuque, Iowa.


In 2005, the Dubuque mayor stated, “The next five years will define the next 50 for Dubuque.” This kicked off a massive visioning process for the community that sought big ideas with broad acceptance that would have a long-term, positive impact on the growth and quality of life of the greater Dubuque community.

Read more about that process here.

I think Yankton needs to do the same thing.

We all need to come together, invest our talents and create a cohesive community vision for the long-term future.

We need to think big.

When I talk to people in the community, I sense a hunger to do big things because of a belief in the potential of Yankton to be more than it is right now.

Look at the small European island of Guernsey. A group there has set the goal of making it the best place to live in the world by 2020. Yes, you read that right.

It might sound crazy, but it’s also really inspiring. Similarly, we need to have the confidence to set big goals for Yankton. If we don’t believe in ourselves, no one else will, either.

Included in my personal vision of Yankton would be downtown and riverfront development; more public art, architecture, trails and other quality of life improvements; higher wages; and a community-wide focus on health and happiness that would have buy-in from all community members.

I don’t want to be a community where people ask, “Why don’t we have that?” I want to be a community where people ask, “How in the world did we get that?”

Let’s use the next five years to define the next 50 for Yankton and make ourselves and future residents proud.

Have ideas? Let’s talk about them on the Nathan For Yankton Facebook page.