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Baltimore law gives mayor big leeway in curfew decisions

As 'conservator of the peace,' Mayor Rawlings-Blake does not need city council approval to impose a curfew

Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced a citywide curfew this week, after protests and violence broke out over the recent death of Freddie Gray, a 25–year-old whose spine was nearly severed while under police custody.

The curfew was imposed Monday and stipulated that starting the following night at 10 p.m., no child or adult could lawfully go outside within the city limits until 5 a.m. the next day — with “exceptions of emergency personnel and those commuting to and from work for essential functions, including students traveling to/from classes,” according to the city’s website.

The mayoral decree is set to end next Tuesday morning, when the mayor will determine if additional days are needed.

The decision to implement such a wide-ranging curfew is well within the mayor’s legal authority, according to city’s lawyers. “The Mayor, by virtue of the office, shall have all the powers of a conservator of the peace,” according to the city’s charter. City Solicitor George Nilson said that authority “includes curfews.”

Unlike in the case of an indefinite curfew — such as the one put in place for juveniles in Baltimore last year by Rawlings-Blake and approved by the city council — the mayor does not need approval from any civilian or governmental body to impose an emergency curfew.

The city charter does not detail when the mayor can and cannot activate an emergency curfew, putting full trust in the mayor’s decision-making.

And there isn’t much citizens can immediately do to challenge the legality of the curfew, except defying the orders — and risking arrest and being charged with a misdemeanor.

But if the curfew continues after the peace seems to have been restored in Baltimore, Nilson said, then individuals or companies could potentially sue the government.

“If there’s a business affected because their customers come during late hours like a restaurant, they might file a lawsuit against the city to have the curfew lifted,” Nilson said, though he believes such a situation is unlikely.

Civil rights attorney Jim Chanin told Al Jazeera that when curfews are applied as a short-term solution right after major civil unrest, “the courts tend to be more lenient” about upholding the curfews.

But in the event that the curfew continues indefinitely — as Mayor Rawlings-Blake has the ability to extend them past the seven-day period — Chanin said that “it will probably be struck down the minute it appears, as though there is no bona fide emergency. I think someone can come in and challenge it and be successful.”

The longer the curfew is in place, the more “you risk discriminating against poor people,” Chanin said.

Baltimore’s jobless rate stands at 8.2 percent, almost 3 percentage points higher than U.S. figures. The city's median household income is $42,266, a number well below the U.S. average of $52,250. Some 28 percent of Baltimore’s African-Americans live below the federal poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Although the curfew allows workers to commute to and from work, many Baltimore businesses are forced to close.

According to the city's website, "Non-essential business operations should be suspended ... This includes restaurants, entertainment venues and bars, which should be closed during these times."

“How are you going to be able to go to work if you have a nighttime job? A lot of people live from hand to mouth,” Chanin said.

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