Edgar Rodriguez often spends his time after school coming downtown. He volunteers with a liberal-leaning political group with offices in the legal district on Sixth Street.
Rodriguez, 17, plans to go to college. He is a little worried, however. Volunteering downtown means some late-night work sessions. Now a proposal before the Las Vegas City Council would make it a misdemeanor for him to be downtown after 9 p.m. on weekends.
“What if all of the sudden on my transcript it says you went to jail?” he asks.
It’s not a flight of fancy. The council, responding to claims of widespread underage drinking downtown, especially on weekends, would allow Metro police to fine teenagers under 18 $300 and deposit them immediately in juvenile detention, or into the custody of their parents, depending on the arresting officer’s choice.
Rodriguez lives just north of downtown. He says that a lot of people in his neighborhood don’t have $300. If they don’t pay, serious legal problems would ensue, putting the teenager, or his or her parents, on the way to the pokey.
The original proposal would place about eight square miles of curfew over downtown, from Sahara Avenue on the south to U.S. 95 to the north, Interstate 15 to the west to Eastern Avenue to the east. It would include large swaths of residential areas along with the traditional commercial centers such as Fremont Street and Charleston Boulevard. The Las Vegas Academy, a magnet schools for the arts and an area high school, would lie close to the center of the proposed curfew area.
Rodriguez usually gets a ride downtown with his friend Elsa Lopez, who just turned 18 and started attending UNLV. She also lives just outside downtown but goes there to work with nonprofits.
She says the law, if enacted, won’t do much to stop underage drinking. But it would keep young people from attending events or volunteering downtown.
Lopez says a lot of her friends take the bus or walk downtown, and it is easy to misjudge the time, especially during the summer months when it can be light until after 8 p.m.
“Kids walk places all the time,” she says. “It’s more time-consuming.”
Metro, which did not respond to e-mailed requests for an interview on the proposal, has included some caveats to the proposed law: A teen can be out after 9 p.m. with a parent or guardian; teenagers under 17 can go to or leave work with a note from their boss (what one wag called the “Papers, please!” exception); and a teenager is granted a half-hour to travel directly home if coming from some sort of a public event.
Lopez and Rodriquez say they don’t come downtown to drink; in fact, they say, they don’t drink at all. (Rodriguez says he swallowed some champagne on New Years Eve once by accident, and he hasn’t done it again.) Lopez says the problem isn’t the young people. It’s those who illegally sell or give alcohol to underage drinkers.
“Maybe it would be more efficient to go after the people selling the alcohol?” Lopez asks.
Media accounts on the proposal have veered from very supportive — the Las Vegas Sun said that downtown businesses welcomed the proposal — to critical, with the Review-Journal citing civil-liberties advocates who questioned the plan.
Brad Jerbic, the Las Vegas city attorney, told the Sun that there is already a city-wide curfew of midnight on weekends for under-18-year-olds. But critics say that misses the point: a 9 p.m. curfew focusing on downtown is both excessive and geographically unfair.
Cameron Catton, the youth services manager at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Las Vegas, says the curfew is going to be a big problem for the young people with whom he works.
“It’s going to interfere with our programming and every single aspect of what we do,” he says. “We have programming that goes until 10 and sometimes later on Fridays and Saturdays. Youths that are 18 or under, who are walking out of the Center, could be cited or arrested just for being who they are.”
Catton says that some of the young people he works with are homeless, and some have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Some of those young people may have participated in last weekend’s annual Pride parade or other activities, which went until 11 p.m. “Next year’s, if it goes to 11, is it going to be off limits to people 18 or under?” he asks. “They could be arrested for attending.”
There’s a double burden for many young people in and near downtown, Catton says. “A vast majority of the youth in this area are people of color. … They are already being targeted for their racial heritage. This is just an added level of fear for young people.” He predicts that the curfew, if enacted, would lead to young people not having, or not being able to access, services downtown.
The ACLU of Nevada has similar concerns.
“As it is currently proposed, it is far too broad in its scope and way too onerous in its implementation,” Director Tod Story says. “The boundaries are far too large. It encompasses all kinds of neighborhoods that have no part to play in the problem that they, they being the City Council, have identified as problem areas.”
Story notes that a teenager on one side of Eastern, for example, would be allowed out to play midnight basketball or walk to the store, while a young person who lives on the other side would be violating the law. He says the net result would be to unfairly drag young people into the criminal justice system — while those who, for example, choose to illegally guzzle alcohol can easily escape the dragnet by going outside the cordon sanitaire.
“You end up dragging a lot more kids into the problem,” Story says. “If you’re identifying kids downtown, and it’s not applicable to the entire valley, it’s just within a neighborhood, then you’re stereotyping. Only the kids within this boundary are the problem? That doesn’t make sense except to give the police one more reason to stop someone, question them, for what may have no basis or reason except that they are walking, riding their bike or driving their car at 9:01 p.m. That is the wrong way to treat members of our community.”
Rodriguez says he doesn’t understand the difficulty. He says that he sees hundreds of teenagers participating in the monthly First Friday activities, but he doesn’t see underage drinking.
Indeed, outside of the anecdotal reports of underage drinking — which would include, of course, people ages 18 through 20 — it is difficult to ascertain the level of the problem. Metro did not respond to a request for information.
Councilman Bob Coffin says that the concerns have been noted and the curfew overlay may be reduced by as much as three-quarters.
Advocates for the curfew point to the fact that the Strip, in the unincorporated county, has had such a curfew for many years. But for teenagers who work, visit or live downtown, there are some pretty significant differences between the two areas. There are few if any churches, nonprofits, public schools or residential neighborhoods that welcome young people on the Strip for ordinary acts of civic living. The Strip is for gambling and drinking, especially at night, and so it makes sense to shoo kids out.
Downtown is a completely different story.
“The Strip — its main goal is casinos,” Lopez says.
Dulce Valencia, 17, a Canyon Springs High School student, agrees.
“I get what they’re trying to do, but I don’t think that’s the way to do it,” Valencia says. “I go downtown after 9 for festivals and stuff. I have no intention of underage drinking, but I want to participate in my city.”
The council will consider the issue at its Sept. 18 meeting. LAUNCE RAKE