McNeil v. Lu: Questions Presented

Shortly after midnight in the city of Amesville, petitioners McNeil and Perez–15-year-old boys–were playing video games at Playland, an all-night amusement park and arcade, when the owner approached and asked if they were under 18. When they refused to answer, he called two employees and had the boys physically escorted to his office. He phoned the police, detained the boys for 45 minutes until the police arrived, and denied their requests to call their parents, use the bathroom or leave.

A police officer questioned the boys in the Playland office and, after determining that they were minors, issued them citations for violating Amesville’s curfew law, which made it unlawful for persons under the age of 18 “to remain, idle, wander, stroll or play in any public place or establishment between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m.,” regardless of parental permission. (The boys had it.)

The law also prohibited the owner of a private establishment from knowingly allowing a minor to remain on the premises during curfew hours, and said also that, upon probable cause, the owner “may question any person suspected of being a minor and take reasonable steps to prevent minors from entering or remaining on the premises during curfew hours.”

In a suit against Playland and the police and prosecutor, petitioners alleged that the curfew violated their fundamental right to freedom of movement–a right enjoyed by people 18 and older–and therefore denied them equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment. They also claimed, under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, that Playland was liable for damages because it engaged in state action (the detention), under color of state law, that was unreasonable and violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

Respondents answered that the curfew was constitutional because it was substantially related to the state’s interest in preventing crime and mischief by minors. They argued further that there wasn’t enough of a common purpose between Playland and the state of Ames to warrant the conclusion that Playland had engaged in “state action.”

The three-judge panel in the Ames finals didn’t rule on the merits. But, as Judge Ilana Rovner said in her remarks to the assembly afterward–without disagreement from Justice Souter or Judge Garza–“I just want to say to the petitioners, you had the harder case.”