ACLU files suit to block curfew

LAFAYETTE — Ville Platte’s “walking curfew” ordinance violates the First Amendment and disproportionately affects lower-income residents, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The ordinance has been in place since February and makes it illegal to travel by foot between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. from Sunday through Thursday, and from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on any Friday or Saturday night, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Lafayette.

Violators face up to a $200 fine and/or 30 days in jail, the suit says.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Arthur Sampson, a Ville Platte resident, community activist and president of the Evangeline Parish NAACP.

The suit seeks to bar enforcement of the curfew and aims to ultimately have the curfew ruled illegal.

“Punishing people for relying on their feet rather than a car for transportation makes no sense and has a disproportionate impact on those who can afford it the least,” ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman said in a news release.

Ville Platte Police Chief Neal Lartigue, who supports the ordinance and is a named defendant in the lawsuit, said the curfew was enacted “for public safety” in an effort to combat a spike in crime at the beginning of the year.

“I’m for it,” Lartigue said.

The curfew went into effect Feb. 12 on a temporary 60-day basis, and has since been renewed three times by the City Council, the lawsuit says.

The suit says that Sampson and other city residents are unable to leave their homes during the curfew “for fear that they will be cited and arrested for nothing more than appearing in public.”

“This law makes criminals out of Ville Platte residents who simply want to walk their dogs, go around the corner to visit a neighbor, or walk to a nearby store to buy needed supplies,” Esman said in the release.

The city, Mayor Jennifer Vidrine, Lartigue and council members C.J. Dardeau, Mike Perron, Freddie Jack, Donald Sam and Taranza Arvie have all been named as defendants.

Vidrine did not return a call to her office seeking comment Wednesday.

Perron said the ordinance was enacted to ease concerns from residents about a string of break-ins and excessive late-night loitering in and around city streets.

“I’m 100 percent for it,” Perron said.

The suit says the initial basis for the curfew was an “insufficient factual justification for the City’s dramatic infringement upon the protected liberties” of Sampson and other city residents.

Neither Perron nor Lartigue had specific figures on the impact the ordinance has had on crime rates, although Lartigue said one recent crime report indicated there were fewer arrests in August than in January 2011.

“It did deter a lot crime in the city,” Lartigue said.

Perron agreed.

“I think it’s working great,” the councilman said.

Perron said the previous city administration had once enacted a similar curfew until a question arose over its constitutionality.

“I’m just looking for the betterment of Ville Platte,” Perron said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Even without the lawsuit, the ordinance’s future appears uncertain because a recent effort to renew the curfew for a full six months failed before the council.

The ordinance remains in effect under the current 60-day term, which is set to expire next week.

“The ordinance is in place until it is voted out,” Lartigue said.

Sampson is represented by ACLU staff attorney Justin P. Harrison and Lafayette attorney William. L. Goode.