Delaware Public Media

Dover curfew comes under fire, despite lack of enforcement

Jun 12, 2020

As cities across the country lift curfews, the City of Dover’s remains in effect. Some are calling it a violation of First Amendment rights.


Cities like Chicago, Atlanta, D.C. and New York have lifted curfews put in place in response to protests against police brutality. Meanwhile Dover residents remain under curfew 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day. 

Dover Police Department spokesperson Mark Hoffman says the department has not enforced the curfew. 

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen has characterized enforcement as “liberal-minded,” and guidance from the City encourages residents to comply with the curfew “voluntarily.” It does not apply to law enforcement, fire fighters, medical personnel, or members of the news media, and the City has said that people are allowed to travel to and from work during the curfew, though “verification” may be required. 

Still, the ACLU of Delaware and Dover-based lawyer Adam Windett are calling for the curfew to be lifted, arguing it violates residents’ First Amendment rights. 

Windett, who wrote a letter to Christiansen this week, said in an interview Friday the curfew may have a chilling effect on free speech. 

“The Mayor’s declaration is a legal justification for law enforcement to stop anyone in the city after 9 p.m.,” he said. “Absent an imminent threat, the declaration functions as a general warrant … I’m also concerned about people’s freedom of speech and freedom of movement being curtailed.”

Windett argued there is no ‘imminent danger’ justifying the curfew, as is necessary under city code. 

“On the 31st of May, there were some peaceful protests. There was some crime that followed, some burglary, some theft, some criminal mischief,” he said. “But we’re now at June 12. And we haven’t seen widespread civil unrest—rioting, looting, arson, things like that. Cites across the country are lifting their curfews for good reason. I don’t know why Dover’s is continuing. ”

Under Dover’s city code, the Mayor must declare a state of emergency in order to enact a curfew. To justify a state of emergency, the Mayor must find that part or all of the city is in “imminent danger of suffering civil disturbance, disorder, riot or other occurrence which shall endanger the lives, safety, health or property of the public.”

In a letter to Christiansen Friday, ACLU of Delaware Executive Director Mike Brickner and Legal and Policy Director Karen Lantz argued the city’s “generalized concern for violence” is not properly addressed by the curfew. 

“Protesters who may otherwise go out and express their First Amendment views may hear about the curfew and be afraid to go to the city and exercise their first amendment rights,” said Brickner in an interview Friday. 

He added curfews are often implemented in disproportionate ways. 

“They can sometimes be tools to use as a pretext for police to stop and question black or brown people and used to harass protesters,” he said.

Brickner said the organization will look at “all options,” including litigation, if Christiansen does not lift the curfew. 

“Most cities in the United States are able to function without a curfew,” said Brickner. “Dover can as well.”

Mayor Christiansen did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Windett is offering free legal services for anyone charged with a criminal offense for peacefully protesting or violating Dover’s curfew.