As House Committee Considers Latest "Patriot 2" Provision, ACLU Urges Congress to Reject Further Expansion of Government Powers

May 5, 2004 12:00 am

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As House Committee Considers Latest “Patriot 2” Provision, ACLU Urges Congress to Reject Further Expansion of Government Powers


WASHINGTON – Citing widespread concern from across the political spectrum about the Patriot Act’s overly broad definition of terrorism, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged the House Judiciary Committee to reject legislation that would expand the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty.

The proposal would essentially make any federal crime currently punishable by more than a year in prison a capital offense — if the crime was intended to influence government policy, endangers human life and results in death. This provision originally was included in the draft “Patriot 2” legislation circulated early last year, but never formally introduced.

“Congress should be reviewing the worst excesses of the Patriot Act, not expanding it,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Members of Congress should resist any efforts to pass provisions of Patriot Act II piece-by-piece.”

The bill, H.R. 2934, or “Terrorist Penalties Enhancement Act of 2003” was the subject of a subcommittee hearing last month at which the ACLU noted that federal law already provides 20 separate death penalties for serious terrorism crimes, including bombings, hijackings, assassinations and hostage taking. In its testimony, the ACLU said that the Justice Department has not been forthcoming in its disclosures regarding how the Patriot Act has been used so far, and called for Congress to review existing powers before any further expansions are considered.

If adopted, the proposed legislation would do two things. First, it would make at least 23 additional crimes eligible for the death penalty. Second, it would create an unprecedented “catch-all” death penalty for any other federal crime punishable by more than a year in prison if it meets the PATRIOT Act’s overbroad definition of terrorism and results in death.

The concern with the definition of terrorism as enacted in the Patriot Act is that individual protestors and activists from groups including Greenpeace and Operation Rescue could be labeled “terrorists, and if this bill were to pass, they could run the risk of being sentenced to the death penalty if someone dies during the course of their civil disobedience, even if the death was unintended.

The ACLU also noted that the proposal could actually hurt America’s anti-terrorism efforts. Many nations that have abolished the death penalty are unwilling to extradite or provide evidence in federal terrorism cases if the suspect could be subjected to the death penalty as a result of their cooperation with the United States. Suicidal, politically motivated terrorists such as members of Al Qaeda would be unaffected as often they are seeking to create martyrs for their causes and to generate publicity.

“This measure, if adopted, will only increase mistrust both at home and abroad of anti-terrorism efforts and further isolate America in the world,” McCurdy said. “As we set out to make ourselves safer, we must not accept measures that undermine the very freedoms we are trying to protect.”

The ACLU’s testimony on HR 2934 “Terrorist Penalties Enhancement Act of 2003” can be found at:

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