Since 1991, the Houston Police Department has held the authority to detain and issue citations with fines of up to $500 to unattended minors out in public during the school day on weekdays, overnight starting at 11 p.m. on weekdays and overnight starting at 12 a.m. on weekends.
Criminal justice reform advocates and residents voiced concerns about the ordinance’s criminal penalty and potential for racial profiling to City Council members June 25 and 26.
“Curfews should be important, but I think it should also be modified. Criminalization is too much,” 19 year-old resident Gloria Ortiz said. “For immigrants, if they’re going through a process of [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] approval, it could be revoked. For immigrant parents it’s very hard on them.”
Every three years, Houston City Council must review the ordinance and either renew it, with or without amendments, or let it expire. The last time the ordinance was amended was in 2007, according to an HPD presentation to council. Criminal justice reform advocates and residents are now pushing council to add new amendments or abolish it entirely.
“At the very least we would like to see the decriminalization of the ordinance when no crime is committed,” law student Destin Germany said. “…what I see here is a shattered relationship between the police and the public. If you think a minor won’t talk to a police officer without an ordinance, then that’s a bigger problem.”
Many council members responded positively to the input, although none expressed a desire to let the curfew expire altogether. Houston Police Department Lieutenant Manuel Cruz said the ordinance is an important law enforcement tool. Without it, minors are not legally obligated to speak with police officers when approached during curfew hours, he said. Officers also have no authority to detain a minor who is not engaging in illegal behavior even if the officer believes the minor is in danger by being out late at night, Cruz said.
“This may be a tool for Houston Police Department to have a conversation and identify cases of human trafficking,” said Council Member Brenda Stardig, who is chair of the Houston City Council Public Safety Committee. “If you understand the average age of victims of human trafficking, we can’t have those conversations without this tool.”
Council Member Mike Knox, a former police officer, said keeping the ordinance in place does not mean that minors will automatically be issued a citation. It does, however, permit that officer to speak to the juveniles and take them into temporary custody.
The actual number of citations issued per year has fallen dramatically since the ordinance’s inception with 14,000 issued at its peak in 1996 and 137 issued in 2018, according to HPD data.
“We may have started using this thing at 14,000 tickets as a hammer, but now we’re using it as a flashlight,” Cruz said.
Changes in the pipeline
Mayor Sylvester Turner said he is working with advocacy groups as well as Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo on a proposed list of amendments, including the possibility of eliminating the daytime curfew and lowering the maximum fine.
Other council members expressed interest in lowering the maximum fine and collecting better data on the citations to ensure that they are not promoting racial profiling. Currently, HPD tracks citations for blacks and Asians but tallies Caucasian and Hispanic recipients together, which is the federal standard for tracking such data, Cruz said.
In his presentation, Cruz said the breakdown of citations in these categories in 2018 closely mirrored the demographics of Houston ISD, which Council Members Michael Kubosh and Robert Gallegos said is not an accurate depiction of the city’s overall youth population.
“I want to see a breakdown on the demographics and not show Hispanics as white when only 8.7% of HISD is white,” Gallegos said.
Houston City Council will host another public hearing July 10 at the city hall chambers on the second floor at 911 Bagby St., Houston.