A curfew is an order prohibiting or limiting one’s right to be out in public at certain times or in certain places, and it is implemented by federal, state, or local authorities, depending on the particular reason for the order. Curfew laws represent a method of surveillance of movement for certain individuals, which the government argues is needed for the protection of people and property and is not outweighed by privacy concerns. This entry reviews the various populations to whom these laws may apply and then discusses legal challenges to juvenile curfew laws.


Many curfew laws in the United States apply only to juveniles under the age of 18 years, having been implemented in an effort to curtail juvenile delinquency; however, curfew laws have been enacted during times of natural disasters, civil unrest, and other types of disturbances, perceived or real. For example, in the summer of 2014, the governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew for the city of Ferguson following demonstrations protesting the police killing of an unarmed black teenager. When curfew laws have been implemented during times of natural disasters (e.g., tornados, hurricanes, floods), the stated purpose is to protect people, real and personal property, and communities from would-be looters and for public safety.

Curfew laws have also been used to target certain groups. For example, curfew laws were used during slavery and during the Jim Crow era whereby African Americans were required to be out of the public domain or away from certain locales at a particular time or before sunset; hence, the laws were sometimes referred to as sundown laws or Black Codes. Other minorities have also been subjected to this type of social control: Curfew laws were imposed on people of Japanese descent during World War II, Chinese people in the mid-1800s, and Native Americans and people of Mexican origin during the first half of the 20th century. In addition, curfews have been imposed on persons on parole or probation and those with bail or bond restrictions to control their movement while under government monitoring.


Juvenile curfew laws have also been challenged on constitutional grounds. Most often these challenges are based on the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Those opposed to curfews have argued that these laws place limitations on a youth’s right to free association and speech. Others suggest that these laws give law enforcement excessive power to detain youth without probable cause and subject them to questioning by the police in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Still others argue that under the Ninth Amendment, these laws violate parents’ rights to privacy in their ability to rear their children. Furthermore, it has been suggested that youth curfews violate the Fourteenth Amendment by establishing a suspect class based solely on the age and, in some cases, the race and ethnicity of individuals. Groups such as the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the American Civil Liberties Union, in arguing against these laws in court, suggested that these laws result in disparate treatment of minority youth.

In reviewing curfew cases, courts have tried to strike a balance between the government’s interest in protecting public safety and ensuring the mobility rights of individuals. However, it seems that the courts have not addressed another issue that critics have raised: the issue of more youth having contact with and being processed through the juvenile justice system. Critics claim that although violations of these laws are status offenses (i.e., offenses that would not be a crime if committed by an adult) and may not result in a youth having a delinquent record, such violations may affect the youth’s future. While some courts have struck down curfew laws that they found to be vague, overreaching, and in violation of basic fundamental rights, others have upheld such laws.

As a result of the diverse court rulings, some states and localities are strengthening their laws or enacting new laws. In 2014, two Maryland jurisdictions, one urban and one suburban, enacted more stringent juvenile curfew laws. In June 2014, Baltimore City’s City Council, despite protests, passed a bill that requires juveniles under 14 years to be home by 9 p.m. and those aged 14 to 16 years to be indoors by 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends. Similarly, Hagerstown, a western Maryland suburb, passed stricter legislation that raised the curfew age from 15 to 16 years and moved up the time that unaccompanied children must be indoors by 1 hour, with violations being subject to fines ranging from $100 to $500 for repeat offenses.

Elvira White-Lewis

See also Municipal Surveillance ; Policing and Society

Further Readings

McDowell, D., et al. “The Impact of Youth Curfew Laws on Juvenile Crime Rates.” Crime and Delinquency, v.46/1 (2000).

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives for the States 1994–1996. (Accessed September 2017).

Reynolds, K. M., et al. (2000). Do Juvenile Curfew Laws Work? A Time-Series Analysis of the New Orleans Law.” Justice Quarterly, v.17/1 (2000).