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MANY AMERICANS SAY THEY'D GIVE UP RIGHTS TO FIGHT CRIME

In Ted Miller's drug-ridden neighborhood of Washington, D.C., sirens blare 24 hours a day and random gunshots create fear among the area's residents.

After dark, Miller won't permit his 15-year-old son to walk to the grocery store a block away, and he thinks twice before making the trip himself. Recently, an innocent bystander using the pay phone by the grocery store was gunned down in cold blood.The situation has gotten so bad that Miller is willing to give up some of his constitutional rights for safety. He is willing to have more unannounced roadblocks and unrestricted police searches if that will make his neighborhood less dangerous.

"We are in a crisis epidemic," said Miller, a lawyer and director of admissions at Georgetown Law Center. "It's fine to pontificate about constitutional rights, but when gunshots ring out in the neighborhood, you've got to do something drastic."

Miller, who bought his house 15 years ago when the neighborhood was better, is among a growing number of Americans - wealthy and poor, in large cities and small towns, in good neighborhoods and bad ones - who would happily exchange some of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights for safer, drug-free streets.

Others fear such actions could lead to a police state.

"If we let our liberties go, we may never get them back," said Lawrence Guyot, a community activist in Washington. "When totalitarianism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the American flag. When the fight against drugs is over, we don't want our rights to be gone."

Polls have found that between 50 percent and 60 percent of Americans would give up some of their constitutional protections for increased personal safety.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 62 percent said they would be willing to give up "a few of the freedoms we have in this country" to reduce illegal drug activity and its attendant crime. The poll found 55 percent favored mandatory drug testing for all Americans.

More than half of the respondents said they would permit police searches of the homes of suspected drug dealers without a warrant even if the homes "of people like you were sometimes searched by mistake."

When asked whether occasional drug users should have their cars taken away, 63 percent of the respondents in a Media General-Associated Press poll said yes.

These actions would infringe on such constitutional protections as the prohibition against illegal searches and seizures, freedom of speech and assembly, and the guarantee that citizens will not be deprived of liberty and property without due process of law.

"I'd be willing to be subject to more questioning by police, more roadblocks and random drug testing if it will reduce drugs and crime," said Ardin Marschel, a patent office investigator who lives in Germantown, Md., a relatively crime-free suburb of Washington. "I'm all for more enforcement."

Doll Fitzgerald couldn't agree more. Three of her nephews were killed recently in a single week.

"Our laws and the Constitution don't allow the police to go far enough. I want them to go as far as they can, rights or no rights," said Fitzgerald, a civic activist who lives in a public housing complex in Washington.

Others argue that continued erosion of the protections guaranteed by the Constitution will lead society dangerously close to a police state.

"When one person's rights are trenched upon, everyone's rights are trenched upon," said Milwaukee district attorney Mike McCann. "The deepest threat to civil liberties is the government. Historically that is true, but many people forget that lesson."

Civil libertarians and leaders of minority groups also argue that any erosion of constitutional rights will have a greater impact on minorities.

"When you allow people to be arrested with no evidence they have committed a crime, you allow police to speculate with their own prejudices on why they were there," said Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Race will be a factor. The police will make a lot of mistakes at the expense of innocent people."

Violent crime often is viewed as an inner-city problem that occurs in impoverished neighborhoods where drug use and unemployment are high and hope for a better future is low. But mounting reports of murders, aggravated assaults, rapes and robberies are leaking into midsize towns and suburbs. Random freeway shootings have occurred in Houston, Phoenix, New York, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles.

Scott Brookshire is a bank officer in Belton, Texas, whose life is rarely touched by crime. But he too wants stricter law enforcement.

"I don't mind them stopping my car randomly and going through my wife's purse," he said, "but they better not talk ugly to her."

Civil libertarians, defense lawyers and even some police and prosecutors, however, believe that over the past decade the Supreme Court has chipped away at basic constitutional rights in the name of protecting the public against violent criminals and drug dealers.

But these decisions appear to have had little impact on crime. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, violent crime rose nearly 34 percent from 1981 to 1990.

During this time, the Supreme Court has given law enforcement authorities greater latitude to detain and search potential suspects. Police now can set up unannounced roadblocks and detain airline passengers whose appearance fits a profile of suspected drug smugglers.

Police also can search trash, search the luggage of bus passengers and order urine testing for drugs - all without a search warrant as would have been required a decade ago. The court has even permitted illegal searches if they are made by police "in good faith."

Congress, too, has cut back on constitutional protections, civil libertarians argue, by approving pre-trial detention and seizure of assets and giving law enforcement greater authority to inspect banking and credit card records without a search warrant.

"These decisions have made our jobs a bit easier. Now we tell our officers not to read a suspect his rights immediately so we can pick up spontaneous admissions," said Phil Major, the police chief in White Bear Lake, Minn. "If people don't have a lot to hide, it does not make a whole of sense to stand on your constitutional rights."