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 midnight on weekends.
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. During the public hearings regarding changes to the ordinance, criminal justice reform advocates spoke in favor of amending the ordinance or letting it expire all together.
Houston City Council voted Sept. 18 to remove the daytime hours unless specially called by the mayor for a temporary, 180-day period. They also voted to reduce the maximum fine that a minor can receive down from $500 to $50. The procedure police officers must follow was rewritten to clarify how a police officer can engage with a minor without issuing a citation.
When encountering a minor during curfew hours, an officer must establish if the minor is homeless, according to the new code language. If the minor is homeless, he or she cannot receive a citation and will be transported to a shelter. For other minors, the police officer must attempt to reach the minor’s parent or guardian and transport him or her home. Citations will only be issued when a minor resists transport, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
District A Council Member Brenda Stardig, who is the chair of Houston City Council's Public Safety Committee, said she was concerned that the amendments to the ordinance weakened it and will reduce its effectiveness.
"At some point, we need enforcement," Stardig said. "We need to let these kids know we care about them, and sometimes that means giving them structure."
Previously, HPD tracked citations for blacks and Asians but tallied Caucasian and Hispanic recipients together, which is the federal standard for tracking such data, Houston Police Lt. Manuel Cruz said. Under the new ordinance, the citation has been reformatted to track white and hispanic offenders separately, which District K Council Member Martha Kastex-Tatum said she supported.
"I want to make sure we're not over-policing black and brown children," she said. "It will be helpful if we have statistics that help me have those conversations with people in my district who may perceive that."
Julieta Garibay, Texas director of immigrant advocacy group United We Dream, said allowing officers to issue citations presents concerns for undocumented minors and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status.
“We’re hoping it [will] actually be changed to a civil charge rather than a criminal charge,” she said during public comment. “For immigrant youth the criminal charge would actually lead them to a direct path to deportation, especially in this current administration, or it would stain their record that could lead to deportation later down the line.”
Cruz said in a presentation to council that the citation aspect of 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 transport 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.
Turner told reporters following City Council's vote that police officers will not issue citations for undocumented immigrants breaking curfew. Distirct I Council Member Robert Gallegos said he supported the amendments because he felt confident that minors will be able to clear their records.
"I made sure to ask that the person or the parent of the guardian will be given information in their native language to make sure they know that they can have their record expunged," Gallegos said.
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.