ACLU files federal lawsuit challenging Clinton curfew

A late-night drive through the East Feliciana Parish town of Clinton might give the impression of just another small, sleepy Louisiana town where residents would rather be at home in bed or on the sofa watching TV.

But, in reality, there could be another reason for the quiet streets. It’s illegal to be out past 11 p.m.

Clinton resident and LSU student Tommy Mead hopes that will change. Mead sued the East Feliciana Parish town Wednesday in an effort to overturn a recently adopted curfew that bars residents — adults and children — from public places between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The suit was filed on Mead’s behalf by Justin P. Harrison, legal director of the New Orleans-based ACLU Foundation of Louisiana.

George Brown, who said he lives just outside Clinton’s town limits, said the curfew means he no longer visits Clinton Quickstop, the town’s only 24-hour business, late at night. Brown suspects the city law might be hurting the store’s business during curfew hours.

“I don’t want to go to Clinton after 11 o’clock at night and subject myself to possible arrest,” Brown said.

Brown added that the curfew is perplexing, given that Clinton’s 2010 population was only about 1,600.

“There’s not too much going on,” Brown noted.

Mead often studies at the campus library until late at night and fears he could be arrested while returning to Clinton from Baton Rouge. Mead added that he frequently visits friends and stays out late and should not be subjected to arrest and prosecution for exercising his right to socialize with other people.

Mead’s suit, which also targets Mayor Lori Ann Bell and Police Chief Fred Dunn, alleges Clinton residents risk a $500 fine and/or 30 days in jail if they are “late-night dog walkers, star-gazers (or) patrons of the city’s 24-hour convenience store.”

Calls to Bell’s office and cellphone were not returned.

Dunn said Wednesday: “The citizens of the town of Clinton approached me and wanted the curfew. Until I am told otherwise, it will remain in effect.”

And, Dunn added, “I haven’t had anyone come to me in opposition to it.”

The police chief said 13 burglaries were reported to his department between November and May 30.

The ordinance was adopted by the town’s Board of Aldermen on May 30.

“No burglaries have been reported since then,” Dunn said. He said citations for disturbing the peace averaged between five and 10 per month before the curfew. “There have been none since (the curfew).”

“Curfews are illegal unless the government has lost all control,” Harrison said. “It’s not wartime. The town is not under threat of attack. The National Guard has not been called in. There is no basis for forcing people to remain indoors, and it’s time to give them back the freedom they deserve.”

Calls to the convenience store’s listed telephone number were answered by a machine Wednesday and were not returned.

The suit is assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson, who has called for a Monday telephone conference with lawyers to discuss the case.

Mead asks in the suit that Jackson issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the curfew while the civil suit proceeds.

“The people of Clinton have been forced to remain indoors in violation of their rights to pursue their activities,” said Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana’s office in New Orleans.

“This law makes criminals out of people who want to be out past 11 p.m. — whether Clinton residents or visitors. In a free country, restrictions such as this have no place. It is not the business of the town leaders to decide what is bedtime for the rest of the community.”

The curfew applies to all Clinton residents, but Dunn, the police chief, said officers aren’t looking for opportunities to stop or arrest out-of-towners traveling through Clinton late at night.

“If you’re driving through after curfew, you’re not going to be stopped,” Dunn said. “If you come through at 2 a.m. with loud music on, you’re going to be stopped.”