March 17, 2014

Curfew ordinance gets makeover

Rachel Brown

— Go out in public after midnight in Dalton and you could still get cited to court if you’re 17 or younger.

Changes Dalton City Council members approved Monday to the city code, however, allow exceptions to the curfew between 11:59 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The changes to the ordinance allow minors to be out in public if they have a medical or other emergency, are going to or leaving work, are accompanied by an adult guardian or traveling on the interstate or are returning home from a “school activity, entertainment, recreational activity or dance.” There are also exceptions for activities that could be considered an exercise of the first amendment rights of freedom of speech, assembly and religion. The city’s old ordinance, passed in the 1980s, didn’t provide for such exceptions.

Mayor George Sadosuk said he believes there’s a need for a curfew even though Dalton doesn’t seem to have a large-scale problem with teen loitering.

“If you’re under 16 years of age and you’re out after 12 o’clock it can be dangerous to you as a kid — or you’re up to no good, one of the two,” Sadosuk said. “I think the police are looking out for our young people. There’s good exceptions in there.”

City Attorney Jim Bisson remarked during a work session Monday before the council meeting that enforcement could be difficult and would require officers to use discretion and judgment.

Officials said they became aware of the need to update the local law to match state law after an incident last year involving a teen who was reportedly a good student with a clean record. The teen was reportedly picking up a sibling to go home and was cited late last year under the local ordinance. She was fined several hundred dollars. Several council members said in interviews with The Daily Citizen at the time that they didn’t know about the ordinance or that there is a similar state law.

Bisson said many cities have similar ordinances, and Dalton’s new law is modeled on an ordinance that “survived litigation.”

Council members passed the ordinance without publicly discussing it on Monday, but Councilwoman Denise Wood said after the meeting it’s less stringent than some cities’ ordinances which burden businesses to make sure no minors are out after curfew.

Dalton Police Department records show officers issued 288 citations to minors for violating the local ordinance between July 2009 and December 2013 and another 11 for violating the state law. Most of the violations were after 1 a.m., records show. Most were along with another violation, according to officials.

“The state has a law, and you need to have some sort of law,” Wood said. “You don’t want young people just hanging out in the middle of the night in the wee hours of the morning. It’s reasonable, I think.”

Councilman Tate O’Gwin agreed.

“If we didn’t have it on the books and there’s a 15-year-old out at 3 in the morning and the police see them, they’ve got no reason to go over there and see what they’re up to,” O’Gwin said. “If they’re potentially breaking the law, then they can at least check in on it.”

Councilman Gary Crews said the city intentionally wrote the new ordinance to be “as lenient as it could be.”

Also at the meeting, council members approved an amendment to the city’s 2013 budget that reflects a net revenue increase of about $238,000. Most of that increase is because a portion of the hotel/motel tax revenue went unused.