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Cops Enter Homes to Seize Kids' Guns

For some parents, who are afraid to confront their children about guns, St. Louis police are welcome visitors

IN St. Louis, police have come up with a novel way to get guns out of the hands of kids. They're looking under their beds and in their closets.

It's part of an unusual search-and-seizure program in which officers go door-to-door in high-crime areas and ask families if they can come into their homes to look for firearms.

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Many parents are welcoming them -- either because they are afraid to confront their children about the guns or they don't suspect them of hiding any.

In fact, these searches are turning up a lot of weapons. The year-old program is credited with helping achieve last year's record seizure of nearly 4,000 guns in St. Louis. More than 400 firearms were confiscated in 1994 after parents signed consent-to-search forms.

Now the idea is spreading: San Diego and Pasadena, Calif., have established their own consent-to-search programs. At least 25 other cities have expressed interest.

''The option has always been there,'' says Lt. Joseph Richardson, an aide to St. Louis Police Chief Clarence Harmon. ''Consent-to-search is one exception under the Constitution to the search-warrant rule. However, it was mostly used in situation-specific or reactionary situations. This is more proactive.''

If a consent-to-search form is signed, officers can search the house without a warrant. The consent-to-search form states that no arrests will be made if illegal guns are found in a home. But the firearms will be seized. ''Our primary focus is on getting the weapons away from the child,'' Lieutenant Richardson says.

Ninety-five percent of parents sign the form, according to the St. Louis Police Department. In about half of the searches, at least one gun is found stashed in a teenager's closet or hidden under the bed.

As frustration with juvenile crime grows, police departments are aggressively looking for new approaches to combat the problem.

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''This is evidence of very creative, innovative responses to the crisis level of firearms violence in urban communities,'' says Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

Constitutional concern

But the broadened use of consent as an exception to the constitutional requirement for a search warrant concerns the American Civil Liberties Union and others who are leery of broadening police powers.

''There can be a very strong chilling effect,'' says Joyce Armstrong, director of the St. Louis ACLU office. ''We're talking about a slippery slope here. There could be problems with coerciveness and intimidation, maybe even corruption. It has to be monitored very, very closely.''

''Programs like this have to be scrupulous with respect to the violation of people's civil liberties,'' agrees Professor Rosenfeld. ''But I think the St. Louis program is scrupulous.''

''We've put in a lot of safeguards so we are not violating people's rights,'' Richardson says. A sergeant always accompanies two officers to homes that are searched, and they never go inside without a parent or guardian present. Although the consent-to-search idea can be applied in other circumstances, the department is for the most part limiting its use to juveniles.

Police point to evidence that the program has widespread support in the community. ''We have parents call our hot line and say, 'I think my son has a gun in his room, but I'm afraid to confront him about it,'' says Sgt. Simon Risk. ''They leave a name and address and ask us to act like we don't know anything when we come over.''

Few complaints

One mother who works evenings wanted to sign 10 consent forms and have officers drop by anytime to check the house. ''We told her we couldn't do that,'' Sergeant Risk says.

Roger Goldman, a professor of law at St. Louis University, sees no problem with searches that are initiated by a parent. ''But,'' he says, ''when you have police officials standing in your doorway in the middle of the night like that, it's just too close to a police state to me.''

This shift toward ''the carrot rather than the stick'' is disturbing, Mr. Goldman says. ''In effect, it's saying, 'Let us violate your rights and we will reward you by not arresting anyone.' That to me is an implicit threat.''

The ACLU office has received few complaints about the program, Ms. Armstrong says. ''But some people have called and said they felt they had no choice [but to sign the consent form and allow the search]. They were told that they did have a choice, but they were standing there facing the police.''

Richardson emphasizes that this program takes a ''soft approach.''

''We don't go crashing down doors,'' he says. If someone does not want to sign the consent form, ''we say thank you very much and we walk away.''

That may be the case in St. Louis where Chief Harmon is credited with running a tightly monitored department, Goldman says. ''But what is worrisome is that the program is catching on in other places. Abuses are there waiting to happen.''

Consent should be an exception rather than the rule, Goldman argues.

''These kinds of short circuits around the Constitution seem appealing in the short run. But overall it is a dangerous way to go.''

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