N.J. appeals court clears way for Camden curfew

Rahman Ali, co-owner of Super Crown Fried Chicken, outside his store on Kaighns Avenue. An appellate court upheld Camden's nighttime curfew for businesses. "It's not fair," he says.
Rahman Ali, co-owner of Super Crown Fried Chicken, outside his store on Kaighns Avenue. An appellate court upheld Camden's nighttime curfew for businesses. "It's not fair," he says. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 09, 2013

CAMDEN - After multiple foiled attempts to bring a controversial business curfew to Camden, the ordinance is now law, following an appellate court ruling Thursday.

When the clock strikes midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 p.m. the rest of the week, most retail outlets, including clothing stores and restaurants, within 200 feet of residential zones, must close or face fines and other penalties.

Camden joins two other cities, Newark and Jersey City, which also have introduced curfews in an effort to curb crime. Locally, Collingswood also imposes a late-night business shutdown.

The Camden ordinance means no late-night snacks for residents and could spell financial hardship for small businesses who say more than 30 percent of their profits come late at night.

The mayor's office said it would begin informing merchants and enforcing the new business hours "immediately."

City spokesman Robert Corrales said: "While there are penalties associated with this, the ordinance was never intended to be strictly punitive. We are confident that businesses will comply."

Penalties are up to $1,000 per offense. Habitual offenders could lose their mercantile license.

The curfew ordinance, adopted in August 2011, had been stayed over the summer while the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey agreed to hear an appeal filed by the late Camden activist Frank Fulbrook and 7-Eleven Inc., representing its two Camden stores, along with other local business owners who said the law infringed on their constitutional rights and could put them out of business.

The curfew does not apply to pharmacies or businesses holding liquor licenses or selling fuel, though it would apply to gas-station markets within 200 feet of residential zones.

(Taverns and bars are not covered by the ordinance because they fall under separate state Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations.)

Praise from Redd

Officials earlier had pushed for the ordinance unsuccessfully in 1998 and 2006. They have called it a crime-fighting move in a city ranked among the most dangerous in the nation. They have said there is a correlation between crime and late-night hours at city retail establishments where people congregate.

On Thursday, newly reelected Mayor Dana L. Redd hailed the ruling, saying it clears the way for improvement in the "quality of life and public safety" of residents.

"Similar to our surrounding suburban neighbors, there is no reason for businesses in Camden to be open into the late night hours - we are not New York City," Redd said in a statement. "Our residents have long advocated for a new business-hours ordinance, and I am thrilled that we can finally deliver on this."

In April, Superior Court Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina - now nominated by Gov. Christie to the state Supreme Court - upheld the ordinance, calling it a valid exercise of police powers.

His decision followed a seven-day bench trial that included testimony from 7-Eleven regional manager Michael Bertha, who said the ordinance would have a negative impact on its two Camden stores, and from a former professor of criminology at Rutgers-Camden, Jon'a Meyer, who argued that the law would not eliminate unwanted activity but just move it elsewhere.

Fernandez-Vina also heard from Deputy Chief Michael Lynch of the Camden County Police Department, who provided an overview of crime hot spots in the city, noting that areas near late-night eateries had higher crime rates than those where no late-night eating establishments were located.

The three-judge appellate panel concurred with Fernandez-Vina's findings.

At Crown Fried Chicken on Kaighns Avenue in Parkside, co-owner Rahman Ali, 45, said the news probably means his business will have to move.

"It's not fair to shut down businesses. Crime happens daytime, nighttime, it doesn't matter," he said. "It's not a Crown Chicken problem, it's a people problem. It's a drug problem."

Rahman said nearly half of the eatery's profits come between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., when almost everything else is closed. He said the eatery was still bouncing back from the two months when the curfew was in effect this summer before the stay. "If it's like that again, I think we will not stay in Camden," he said.

As Ali processed the news, Karina Seixas, 25, came in for cigarettes.

Seixas lives around the corner and stops in multiple times a day. She said that when the curfew was implemented she had to walk half a mile up to the Shell gas station at Mount Ephraim Avenue. "At that time of night, young females walking, that's not safe," she said. "That's going to cause crime, not stop it."

Even Seixas' backup plan, the gas-station market, may have to close if it falls within 200 feet of a residential zone.

"How can they shut down?" Seixas asked. "Their name is AM/PM."

Another concern is that the ordinance limits an entire class of city stakeholders, said Raymond Lamboy, president and CEO of the Latin American Economic Development Association.

Give police a chance

"There are fried chicken joints open late in residential neighborhoods that create a ruckus, absolutely," he said. "But does closing them alleviate 60-some odd murders we had last year? . . . Why not give the county police force an opportunity to do their work and make their impact and see if that is the answer to reducing the crime rather than shutting down businesses?"

The legal battle over business curfews in Camden dates back to Mayor Milton Milan's administration, which slapped a midnight curfew in 1998 on takeout restaurants with fewer than 15 seats within 200 feet of residential neighborhoods. A Superior Court judge ruled then that the ordinance would do irreparable harm to the business owners and blocked it.

A second attempt came in 2006 after a high school student was killed outside a Crown Fried Chicken on Mount Ephraim Avenue at 3:40 a.m.

The ordinance, which would have made it unlawful for any food-service entity to remain open after 1 a.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends, was rescinded after the same judge, Francis J. Orlando Jr., found flaws in the wording.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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