353 F.3d 171 (2nd Cir. 2003), 01-7118, Ramos v. Town of Vernon

Docket Nº:01-7118
Citation:353 F.3d 171
Party Name:Ramos v. Town of Vernon
Case Date:June 02, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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353 F.3d 171 (2nd Cir. 2003)

Janet RAMOS, Ind & as next of friend to Angel Ramos & Richard Ramos, Angel Ramos, by & through his next friend, Janet Ramos and Richard Ramos, by & through his next friend, Janet Ramos, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

TOWN OF VERNON and Rudolph Rossmy, Chief of Police in his official capacity, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 01-7118.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

June 2, 2003.

Argued Oct. 22, 2001.

Amended Dec. 19, 2003.

Rehearing in Banc Denied Jan. 22, 2004.

Jon L. Schoenhorn, Hartford, Connecticut (Jon L. Schoenhorn & Associates, Hartford, Connecticut; Philip D. Tegeler, Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Hartford, Connecticut, of counsel), for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Martin B. Burke, Rockville, Connecticut (Jerome D. Levine, Vernon, Connecticut, of counsel), for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: CARDAMONE, WINTER, and SACK, Circuit Judges.

Judge WINTER dissents in a separate opinion.

CARDAMONE, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs Janet Ramos and her sons, Angel and Richard, residents of the Town of Vernon, Connecticut, brought suit

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against the Town of Vernon and its police chief to challenge the constitutionality of Vernon's juvenile curfew ordinance. Among other constitutional claims, plaintiffs allege that the ordinance violates minors' equal protection rights. The case was tried in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut before Judge Alan H. Nevas, who ruled against plaintiffs and denied their request for declaratory relief and their motion for a preliminary injunction, see Ramos ex rel. Ramos v. Town of Vernon, 48 F.Supp.2d 176 (D.Conn.1999), in a judgment dated December 27, 2000. From this judgment, plaintiffs appeal.

Juvenile curfews have existed throughout our Nation's history, and we do not question the Town of Vernon's authority to have such an ordinance under some circumstances. But it is not the case that what the town wills is permissible as of course. Instead, to be upheld as a valid exercise of state power, the curfew's enactment must have been done right. The constitutionality of a curfew is determined by balancing the recognized interests the state has in protecting children and fighting crime against the constitutional right of all citizens, including juveniles, to move about freely. Here, Vernon's curfew interferes with juveniles' freedom of movement, that is, their right with parental consent to walk the streets, move about at will, meet in public with friends, and leave their houses when they please. This right to free movement is a vital component of life in an open society, both for juveniles and adults.

After consideration of these interests, we think the present Town of Vernon ordinance infringes on the equal protection rights of minors. Hence, we declare it unconstitutional and reverse the district court's judgment, and we remand to the district court.

BACKGROUND

A. Vernon's Curfew Ordinance

On August 2, 1994 the Vernon Town Council adopted its first curfew ordinance. That ordinance makes it unlawful for any person under 18 years of age "to remain, idle, wander, stroll or play in any public place or establishment in the Town during curfew hours." From Sunday through Thursday the curfew is in effect from 11:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. the next day. On Friday and Saturday nights, the curfew begins at 12:01 a.m. and ends at 5:00 a.m. the next day.

The ordinance includes several exceptions permitting a minor to be out in public during curfew hours, if: (1) "accompanied by a parent, guardian, custodian or other adult person having custody or control of such minor"; (2) "on an emergency errand"; (3) engaged in a "specific business or activity directed or permitted by his parent, guardian, or other adult person having the care and custody of the minor"; or (4) the minor's presence "is connected with or required by some legitimate employment, trade, profession or occupation." The ordinance also excepts from its strictures minors attending, with parental permission, a "special function or event sponsored by any religious, school, club or other organization." On December 15, 1998, while this suit was pending, another exception was added to the ordinance to exclude from coverage any minor "exercising his/her first amendment rights."

At the trial testing the curfew's constitutionality, two former members of the town council testified that prior to enacting the ordinance, the town's elected officials had begun to notice groups of young people gathering in certain parts of town. In June 1994, two months before the August

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enactment of the ordinance, a 16-year-old Vernon resident was murdered. Further, the returns from a 1994 youth survey distributed to school students in Vernon indicated they were concerned about gangs, guns and violence. With these circumstances in mind, the town council enacted the curfew ordinance to "protect minors from each other and from other persons on the streets during nocturnal hours," to "promote parental responsibility for and supervision of minors" and to "protect the general public from nocturnal mischief and crime committed by minors."

The punishment for violating the curfew depends on the age of the offender. A minor 16 or older may be cited and fined up to $50 for a first offense, $75 for the second offense and $90 for all subsequent offenses. Failure to respond to a curfew ticket has resulted in a minor's arrest. A minor under the age of 16 is not subject to a fine, but the ordinance directs police to issue a warning, send the minor home and report the incident. If a minor under the age of 16 refuses to cooperate or is a repeat curfew violator, he or she may be taken to the police station and held there until retrieved by a parent or adult acting in loco parentis.

Moreover, the ordinance makes it unlawful for a "parent, guardian or other adult person having custody or control of any minor under the age of sixteen ... to suffer or permit or by inefficient control to allow" such a minor to violate the curfew. An adult in violation of this provision may be cited and fined, but adults are only in violation if a minor is under the age of 16.

B. Plaintiffs' Claims

Plaintiff Angel Ramos was found in violation of the curfew ordinance on numerous occasions because he was out past curfew hours with general permission from his mother to be out, but without permission to be on a specific errand, or out pursuant to any of the enumerated exceptions in the ordinance. Plaintiff Richard Ramos claims that his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment are chilled due to the ordinance and that he must run home when out past curfew, even with permission, for fear of being found in violation. In their complaint plaintiffs assert the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague and violates the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Specifically, they contend that several of the exceptions in the ordinance are too vague to provide notice of prohibited conduct or to guide enforcement efforts. Richard and Angel Ramos further allege the curfew infringes on minors' rights to free speech and association under the First Amendment and to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, they aver enforcement of the ordinance violates their Fourth Amendment guarantee to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. Finally, Janet Ramos argues that the curfew's restrictions interfere with parents' due process right to raise their children as they see fit, because she as well as several other parents want the freedom to allow their juvenile children to be out late at night under less stringent restrictions than provided for in the town's ordinance.

Plaintiffs also declare in their complaint that the Vernon ordinance violates several provisions of the Connecticut Constitution. These claims are comparable to the federal claims plaintiffs make, but we need not concern ourselves with them because they are not before us on appeal.

C. Proceedings Below

Because plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the curfew, the district court combined a hearing on that motion with a trial on the merits. The four-day bench trial featured testimony from Janet, Angel and Richard

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Ramos, police officials, other parents in Vernon, former town officials and experts for both sides.

After the trial concluded, the district court dismissed as moot the case brought by Angel Ramos because he had turned 18 and therefore was no longer subject to the curfew. With respect to the state constitutional claims, the district court certified six questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which later ruled that the Connecticut Constitution provides no independent grounds on which to invalidate the ordinance. See Ramos v. Town of Vernon, 254 Conn. 799, 761 A.2d 705 (2000) (rejecting all plaintiffs' claims under the Connecticut Constitution). In answering the certified questions, the Connecticut Supreme Court avoided reviewing the federal constitutional claims, considering only whether the Connecticut Constitution provided any extra protections that required striking down the curfew ordinance. Id. at 818-20, 761 A.2d 705. Upon receipt of the Connecticut Supreme Court's response to the certified questions, the district court entered final judgment in favor of the defendants. Plaintiffs then filed this appeal. 1

DISCUSSION

I Standard of Review

Challenges to the constitutionality of a local ordinance are subject tode novo review. See, e.g., Myers v. County of Orange, 157 F.3d 66, 74 (2d Cir. 1998). We accept the district court's findings of fact, however, unless they are clearly erroneous. See United States v. El-Hage, 213...

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