On almost any day, hordes of teenagers congregate outside Salt Lake City's downtown malls, and still more roam the streets during school hours.

Many of them have, for whatever reason, chosen not to join the mainstream of students. Perhaps they suffer from low self-esteem and poor grades. Perhaps they just don't like conforming to the rules others have set for them.In any event, their disregard for school often leads to trouble.

Police Chief Ruben Ortega says these youths are responsible for burglaries and vandalism. He believes truancy is the first step toward crime and gang involvement. That's why he has decided city police officers should begin a crackdown on truancy, routinely taking youths off the street and to a holding center, where they will await a return to parents and school. He hopes to drop daytime crime by up to 50 percent, which is what happened during a similar push 10 years ago.

He may be right, but in his zeal to rid the streets of school-aged youths, Ortega should pause long enough to make sure his officers don't trample on the rights of youths or use the crackdown as an excuse to harass them. In this case, fairness seems a daunting task.

The Salt Lake metropolitan area is filled with many schools and several school districts. Many of them operate on year-round schedules with students divided into four separate "tracks," each with its own nine-weeks-on and three-weeks-off schedule. Students from at least one track will be on vacation at any given time.

Ortega's officers will check the identities of youths against a computer data base of Salt Lake School District students. But the chief admits some of the youths may lie about their names or their ages, and others may live in suburbs.

Ortega promises someone will call the other school districts to verify whether students are excused legitimately. But many of the youths the officers will question likely won't be enrolled in any school. City school officials say only about 50 students are absent districtwide each day. Most of those are home sick in bed. That means a lot of the teens on the streets aren't enrolled in Salt Lake schools.

The chief is empowering officers to decide whether someone is lying and needs to be hauled away for further questioning.

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But any officer trying to check the identities of every youth in or near the downtown area will need time, and plenty of it. Unfortunately, the temptation may be too great to simply round everyone up and verify information later.

Constitutional guarantees against arbitrary searches and seizures extend to teenagers as well as adults. Police have no right to detain a student who is off track simply because he or she "doesn't look right."

Ortega has the right idea. The enforcement of truancy laws and added parental involvement should help reduce crime. Teens who deliberately drop out of school are crying out for help, and the crackdown may keep some from a life of crime.

But to do it right, Ortega must either hire more officers or provide training sessions to make sure the ones he has are patient enough not to act until they have verified information beyond a reasonable doubt.

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