Special Report: 2nd Amendment Under Fire
'Safe Homes' or diminished liberty?
By Bob Barr
Most police officers with whom I have worked over the years, whether as a United States attorney, a lawyer in private practice, or a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, are men and women of integrity and commitment to the communities they serve. The vast majority of those officers have a sincere respect for the constitutional rights of the citizenry. But then again, I've not worked with the Boston Police Department.
The police department in that Massachusetts city launched an initiative recently that exhibits a cynical disregard for the rights of the citizenry, even as it cleverly cloaks the program in language pretending to protect the people toward whom it is directed. I refer to the "Safe Homes Initiative," with its slick brochures and smooth rhetoric.
On the surface, as with virtually all government actions diminishing liberty, the initiative appears benign. The program is "designed" to help parents who have so little control over their children that they cannot, or do not want to, search their rooms to discover if their young charges are hiding firearms in their homes. Boston's police chief graciously has agreed to fill this parental void by sending teams of officers to the homes of parents with children the police or other "community members" believe might be harboring hidden firearms. The "search teams" would then ask the parent or "other responsible adult" (whomever that might be) at the home for consent to search for guns.
The program is problematic on several levels. First, of course, is the fact that three police officers showing up on your doorstep makes it very difficult for a parent or "other responsible adult" to say no when asked to consent to a search. This works a serious injustice to the notion that a person's home is and should remain free from government searches absent a warrant based on probable cause that a crime has been committed. While true, voluntary "consent" can validate an otherwise unlawful, warrantless search, consent born of the sort of police presence contemplated in this Boston initiative would not appear to constitute such grounds.
While the police in Boston promise that any firearm found during such searches will not lead to criminal charges based solely on the possession of that firearm, they cleverly leave open the possibility that if the firearm was used in a crime, charges may be brought.
Interestingly also, literature describing the initiative states that while the searching officers will do their dead level best not to damage property or create an "unnecessary mess" in the searches, there is no guarantee against that. Moreover, if other illegal items are found or seen during the search, this may lead to a resident's arrest. And while the police in Boston promise they will not "automatically notify schools or public housing" authorities if firearms have been found, they will not rule out notifying them. This could lead to families being evicted from public housing (even if the firearm was in the home for personal protection) or to children being expelled from school, both results hardly designed to improve the quality of life or education of persons living in the poorer neighborhoods targeted by this initiative.
The bottom line is, if the police in Boston or any other city have probable cause to believe illegal firearms or other evidence of unlawful activity is located in a home, they ought to investigate and, if armed with a warrant based on probable cause, search that home. But to go through this charade of searching without securing warrants, under the guise of obtaining "consent" of persons who may or may not be the parents of a child, under the transparently false premise that nothing will happen to them if they refuse or if something unlawful is found, is unfair and constitutionally deficient.
There's a reason such programs have not been instituted in other cities (a similar program was launched in St. Louis in the 1990s, with very mixed results before it was terminated). Boston's program is at best disingenuous and clearly corrupting of the Fourth Amendment's guarantees against warrantless searches. Let's not just hope programs like these 'get terminated' on their own. Be vigilant and stand up for your constitutional rights when they are intentionally (or unintentionally) threatened.
Bob Barr is an attorney and former Congressman who led the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. He is currently running for President as a Libertarian.