The District's new curfew law, which netted only three boys on the first night of implementation, is potentially a valuable law enforcement tool for police officers who are on the hunt for juvenile offenders, according to the department's special orders on the new measure.

Officers who determine that a violation of the law has taken place are allowed to conduct criminal background checks, often from a computer terminal in the patrol car. The special orders stipulate that youths may be searched but should not be handcuffed unless they become violent.

The law, which went into effect Tuesday night, prohibits anyone 16 or younger from being on the streets without a parent or guardian after 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursday and after midnight Fridays and Saturdays. All restrictions are lifted at 6 a.m.

The practical enforcement of the measure grants officers "reasonable discretion" in determining what to do with possible violators, including the option of taking them home if they are 13 or older. Younger children must be taken to the station, and police must contact the Child and Family Services Agency, which oversees abused and neglected children. Any child or teenager not picked up by 6 a.m. will be considered abandoned.

The special order, which is dated Sept. 7 and was obtained by The Washington Post, sets out precise criteria for holding curfew violators. The guidelines require that violators be kept in a safe, unlocked room, out of sight and sound of criminal suspects. They also must have reasonsable access to a phone, and boys and girls must be segregated. They must be kept under continuous visual supervision.

But some officers said they lack both the space and manpower to deal with an onslaught, especially on a busy night. "What are we going to do with a person for a period of time?" asked 4th District Lt. Jimmie Riley. "There are a lot of issues--food, water, bathroom."

Officers did not quibble with the intent of the law, just its practical application. "We don't want to get into baby-sitting kids," said Capt. Michael Anzallo, of the 7th Police District in Southeast Washington. "But we don't want them to be running around."

"This is not a declaration of war against children," said Assistant Chief Ronald C. Monroe. "It's just a tool to make the city a little safer."

The law offers a host of exceptions. Children are exempt, for example, if they are on an errand at the direction of a parent. They are exempt if they are attending an official school or religious activity, responding to an emergency, on the sidewalk abutting their or their neighbor's property or if they cite their constitutional rights.

"It won't take kids long to figure out the right answers," said Mary Jane DeFrank, executive director of the local American Civil Liberties Union, which had challenged the law in court. "The kids will soon know to say: 'I'm 17, and getting medicine for my mother.' "

The department's policy for officers directs them to use their discretion in deciding whether to pursue a case and how hard to push for the truth. They should consider, it says, the demeanor of the youths, any prior problems with the law, the distance they are from their homes and the "reasonableness" of their explanations.

Cmdr. Winston Robinson, of the 7th District, said police officers should use their instincts. If a child claims, for example, to be getting medicine, the officer could walk the child to the store and back home, or call the child's mother.

The three teenagers cited as curfew violators Tuesday night were stopped in separate locations in the 1st, 4th and 7th districts. Two 16-year-olds were taken home by police. The mother of a 15-year-old, when contacted by police about 11:35 p.m., said she had been unaware of the law. She said she would send her 16-year-old son to pick up his younger brother. Told that the older boy would also be in violation of the law, the mother arrived herself five minutes later.

As of early today, officers in all of the city's police districts said they knew of no youths who had been picked up overnight for violating the curfew.

The court can impose up to a $500 fine or community service for any adult convicted of violating the law; parents or guardians would also be required to take parenting classes. If a juvenile is convicted, he could be ordered to perform up to 25 hours of community service for each violation.

Officer Eddie Woodward, who was on his beat in Southeast Washington on Tuesday night, lauded the curfew. "It does upset me to see a 3-year-old walk into a store with his 10-year-old brother at 3 a.m.," he said. "If something happens, who's the first person they're going to blame? The police."

Staff writers Allan Lengel and Phuong Ly contributed to this report.