Judge halts enforcement of Camden curfew

Ali Khan serves pizza to a customer at Broadway Food Court.
Ali Khan serves pizza to a customer at Broadway Food Court. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 19, 2012

Camden businesses subject to a controversial late-night curfew won a reprieve Monday when a judge issued an injunction that prohibits city officials from enforcing the ordinance until a full hearing.

Plans to start citing business owners who stayed open past 11 p.m. Monday were immediately put on hold. The ordinance, passed a year ago by City Council, is intended to control crime in a city that is ranked among the most dangerous in the nation.

City officials argue that businesses that stay open into the early morning attract drug activity and other crime. They hope the ordinance will reduce crime, including shootings and a rash of homicides.

The city has tried unsuccessfully to impose a curfew for years. The most recent ordinance was passed in August 2011. It requires businesses within 200 feet of residential neighborhoods to close by 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends.

Gas stations and restaurants that serve alcohol would be exempt. Take-out restaurants and mini-marts would have to close.

Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina of Superior Court said he did not have nearly enough information to decide whether the ordinance was a proper remedy for public safety concerns and whether those concerns outweighed the constitutional rights of owners to conduct business.

He ruled in a lawsuit brought by community activist Frank Fulbrook and business owners.

The judge noted that his decision was not indicative of how he might rule. Last year, another judge denied an injunction request by business owners and Fulbrook, saying he did not have enough evidence to support one.

Fernandez-Vina pointed out that the city had not enforced the law for more than a year, failing to show urgency to start enforcing the curfew before a trial can be held on the full merits of the ordinance, including a thorough evaluation of crime statistics.

The judge added that business owners had provided more evidence over the past year of their concerns.

Businesses could suffer irreparable harm, he said. Some, he said, could go out of business before the trial unfolds.

John Eastlack, one of the attorneys representing the city, stressed that public safety and the quality of life of residents were at stake.

Monday's decision is only temporary until a trial, when the judge could make a final decision. The trial could occur as early as October or could be delayed into next year.

"We are disappointed with the court's ruling," Camden spokesman Robert Corrales said in an e-mail. The city, he said, would comply with the injunction while preparing for trial.

John Calzaretto, an attorney representing businesses, told the judge that the city was unfairly targeting some businesses while not restricting local bars, where he said crime can fester. Calzaretto estimated that 60 businesses could be impacted, but he said city officials had yet to identify businesses that could be cited.

City officials said they had notified more than 850 business owners of the curfew and many were voluntarily observing it.

Fulbrook attended Monday's hearing and expressed appreciation of the judge's consideration.

"The city could have enforced it a year ago. It shows it's not that imperative to crime-fighting," Fulbrook said.

Although no business owners attended Monday's court hearing, attorneys presented affidavits from business owners who fear they would lose profits, and might have to fire employees, or shut down completely.

Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

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