Patriot Act Provisions Voided
Judge Rules Law Gives Executive Branch Too Much Power
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
A federal judge in Oregon ruled yesterday that two provisions of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional, marking the second time in as many weeks that the anti-terrorism law has come under attack in the courts.
In a case brought by a Portland man who was wrongly detained as a terrorism suspect in 2004, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled that the Patriot Act violates the Constitution because it "permits the executive branch of government to conduct surveillance and searches of American citizens without satisfying the probable cause requirements of the Fourth Amendment."
"For over 200 years, this Nation has adhered to the rule of law -- with unparalleled success," Aiken wrote in a strongly worded 44-page opinion. "A shift to a Nation based on extra-constitutional authority is prohibited, as well as ill-advised."
The ruling in Oregon follows a separate finding on Sept. 6 by a federal judge in New York, who struck down provisions allowing the FBI to obtain e-mail and telephone data from private companies without a court-issued warrant. The decision also comes amid renewed congressional debate over the government's broad powers to conduct searches and surveillance in counterterrorism cases. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said last night that the administration "will consider all our options" in responding to yesterday's ruling.
Aiken's ruling came in the case of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer who was arrested and jailed for two weeks in 2004 after the FBI bungled a fingerprint match and mistakenly linked him to a terrorist attack in Spain. The FBI used its expanded powers under the Patriot Act to secretly search Mayfield's house and law office, copy computer files and photos, tape his telephone conversations, and place surveillance bugs in his office using warrants issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
In a settlement announced in November 2006, the U.S. government agreed to pay $2 million to Mayfield and his family and it apologized for the "suffering" that the case caused him. But the pact allowed Mayfield to proceed with a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the Patriot Act, resulting in yesterday's ruling by Aiken, who was nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Mayfield's attorneys said in a statement that Aiken "has upheld both the tradition of judicial independence, and our nation's most cherished principle of the right to be secure in one's own home."
The Oregon and New York rulings are the latest in a series of lower-court rulings that have called into question provisions of the Patriot Act, which Congress approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Lawmakers have since amended the law, partly in reaction to some earlier rulings.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
Friday, September 28, 2007