Congress Takes Aim At USA PATRIOT; ACLU Calls Move Giant Win for Civil Liberties

July 23, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In response to the first clear — and overwhelmingly bipartisan — congressional repudiation of anti-privacy and anti-civil liberties provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act last night, the American Civil Liberties Union today called the move a huge win and urged Congress to follow it with further action to restore Americans’ liberties.

“”Congress took a courageous stand last night in its response to widespread public concern over civil liberties – hopefully this is the first trickle in a flood of PATRIOT fixes,”” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “”Congress is beginning to respond to what regular Americans have been saying at backyard barbecues and across their kitchen tables for months now: we can – and must – be both safe and free.””

Specifically, Congress agreed – by an extraordinary margin – to an amendment to this year’s Commerce, Justice and State funding bill that would bar federal law enforcement from implementing “”sneak and peek”” delayed notification search warrants, pursuant to a provision in the USA PATRIOT Act. Conservative Rep. C.L. “”Butch”” Otter (R-ID) offered the amendment, which passed by a vote of 309 to 118, with 113 Republicans voting in favor. The amendment still has to clear the Senate and the President before it becomes law.

The Otter Amendment is the first unequivocal indication that lawmakers are taking seriously a broad, grassroots backlash against excessive government powers, which has grown exponentially in the past several months. To date, at least 142 communities and three states, encompassing more than 16 million people, have passed pro-civil liberties resolutions that speak out against the PATRIOT Act, many of which call for specific fixes to the bill.

The Otter Amendment would effectively prohibit any implementation of section 213 of the PATRIOT Act, which permits federal agents to obtain sneak and peek warrants under a very low evidentiary standard, making them far easier to get than before the bill was passed. Sneak and peek or “”black bag”” warrants, as they are also called, allow agents to search homes, confiscate certain types of property and essentially “”bug”” computers, without notifying the subject of the search that it is happening for an often indeterminate amount of time.

Critics of the measure say that it violates both the intent and principle of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the long-held “”knock and announce”” warrant requirement, which is meant to give subjects of a search the opportunity to challenge errors in the warrant such as a wrong address or mistaken name.

In addition to the Otter Amendment, the House also rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), that would have withheld federal funds from state and local law enforcement agencies that refused to comply with federal inquiries on the citizenship or immigration status of individuals. Many of the communities that have passed pro-civil liberties resolutions included clauses that prevent such assistance. The House rejected the measure on a 122-305 vote, with 107 Republicans voting against the proposal.

“”Although we applaud Rep. Otter and his fellow patriots, there is now more to be done,”” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”The PATRIOT Act is replete with similar unnecessary and un-American surveillance, detention and investigative powers that must be repealed before we can really begin to restore civil liberties protections to where they need to be in America.””

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