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ACLU skeptical of police warrantless search plan


Boston police are asking parents in high-crime areas to let detectives search their children’s bedrooms for guns without warrants in a new anti-crime program.

The program has already drawn the caution of local civil liberties activists, who quickly called the police effort “an end-run around the Constitution.”

Police said they believe parents are so worried their teenagers will be caught up in gun violence that they’ll be willing to allow police into their homes. If the parents say no, the police will leave.

“They don’t know what to do when faced with the problem of dealing with a teenage boy in possession of a firearm,” Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said of parents. “We’re giving them an option in that case.”

Davis announced the program last Friday in a meeting with community leaders.

During the next two weeks, teams of three plainclothes officers assigned to schools will go to homes where they believe teens have guns and ask their parents or legal guardians for permission to search.

The program, called Safe Homes, has raised questions about civil liberties.

Some critics said people may be too intimidated to say no to police.

“People might not understand the implications of weapons being tested or any contraband being found,” said Amy Reichbach, a racial justice advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “People need to understand that they do not have to consent to let police officers into their private homes. If you say no, the police should leave.”

The program is modeled after one that began in 1994 in St. Louis and ended in 1999, partly because funding ran out. Boston police said that in the first year of the St. Louis program, police were allowed into 98 percent of homes contacted and that guns were seized in half of them.

On Tuesday, the ACLU launched a neighborhood outreach program to educate people about their constitutional rights.

“The ACLU is concerned about our youth and safety in our neighborhoods, but this program does an end-run around basic constitutional protections and we question whether it will effectively reduce the number of guns on the street,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This is not a benign gun collection program.”

The outreach program includes distributing “know your rights” fliers in affected neighborhoods in an effort to warn people about the dangers of consenting to a search without a warrant.

Although the police have promised not to charge teenagers with unlawful gun possession unless the firearm is linked to a crime, they may still charge other members of the household or bring charges based on other crimes arising from evidence seized during a search, the ACLU stated.

“You waive important constitutional protections if you let the police search your home without a warrant,” said Reichbach. “First, if the police find a gun, they may test it and arrest anyone who lives in your home if that gun is linked to a certain kind of crime. Second, if the police find drugs or anything else illegal in your home, they may charge someone who lives in your home, including your child, with a crime. Finally, anything the police find in your home may lead to school discipline for your children, including suspension or expulsion.”

Davis said in a published report that police won’t execute the searches unless they are given permission. He also emphasized that the program was intended to stop violence on the streets.

“There’s a huge body of law on it that clearly indicates that it is justifiable under the Constitution, as long as it’s informed consent,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is to help. We’re not looking to prosecute the individual, we’re looking to get the gun off the street.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.