James Edward Johnson

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Archive for September 2009

City needs narrower option

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My column in today’s Iowa City Press-Citizen:

City needs narrower option
James Eaves-Johnson
Writers’ Group
SEPTEMBER 19, 2009

The police officer pulled up to the curb and asked, “What are you kids up to?”

Most of my friends had made a bee-line to the nearest apartment building. Sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, and none of us was older than 15, but we were just a bunch of restless nerds.

This was the first time I had been to Coralville. A bunch of friends I had met at nerd camp (what else do you call taking advanced classes at a university over the summer?) decided that we should get together. The majority lived near Iowa City, so a friend and I had bugged our parents until they caved and agreed to shuttle us from Des Moines for a weekend.

“We were just bored and decided to take a walk,” I told the officer, slightly annoyed that my friends thought we had a reason to run.

“You know I could take you to the police station and have your parents pick you up, don’t you?”

Apparently, Coralville had a curfew at the time. I had no idea. I was incredulous.

“Well, I am from Urbandale and he’s from West Des Moines,” I said, pointing to my friend who had traveled with me. “I am not even sure that they would pick up the phone, and it is a two-hour drive from here.”

Of course, if he had wanted to detain us at the police station, he would need to call for backup to make room for us all. The police at the station would need to deal with babysitting us for, probably, several hours. Corralling this nerd herd was going to be more trouble than it was worth.

“OK, well go back to the home where you are staying and don’t let me catch you out again tonight.”

The nerd herd complied.

The police officer had little interest in enforcing the curfew law. Arguably, such a law does not exist to be enforced, but exists merely as a pretext for investigation into other criminal acts. Indeed, if such a law were rigorously enforced, it would unnecessarily consume the time of the police and justice system.

And this pretext is precisely why Iowa City is considering a juvenile curfew law. One area of town has had a recent problem with juvenile hooliganism. There is not a general problem with nocturnal youths. There is a problem with a relatively small group of youths in a single neighborhood. The problem is likely a temporary one.

This law may solve the immediate problem. But it will undoubtedly reach further than intended. Will the Iowa City Council be quick to repeal the law when general lawfulness is restored? It seems doubtful. The law will likely remain on the books until it is finally enforced against a few “good” kids, whose parents raise hell until the law is repealed. Until then, the law will undoubtedly invite profiling of suspects and haphazard harassment of juveniles and younger-looking college students. It will result in unequal application of the law and greater suspicion of police motives.

If the council wants to attack a narrow problem, it should create a narrow solution. To start, it could change the proposed curfew by setting a date for it to sunset.

A better solution might be to delegate limited authority to the mayor and chief of police to declare a temporary neighborhood-specific curfew based on a finding of fact that it was experiencing an acute crime problem. Such a declaration could become effective only upon notification of the council at its next meeting, at which time the council could intervene and nullify the declaration if necessary. Unless the declaration was renewed, it could expire automatically in three months or earlier by revocation.

The council should find a narrower solution. It cannot intend for the currently proposed law to be broadly enforced. One would hope that it does not intend that the law be enforced erratically.

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Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, September 19, 2009 at 9:22 am

Posted in liberty

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