A judge in Oregon ruled Wednesday that two key provisions of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional.
U.S. District Court Judge, Ann Aiken, found that the act was wrong to allow search warrants and wire taps to be issued without probable cause that a crime had been committed.
As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, the ruling is one of the most widely anticipated in the nation and is seen as a blow to the Justice Department and White House.
In 2004, when Spanish police were searching for evidence in the Madrid train bombings, they found a plastic bag containing bomb-making paraphernalia. On that bag was a partial fingerprint, which showed similarities to the fingerprint of Portland attorney, Brandon Mayfield.
The Spanish didn’t think the print was a match, but American authorities were more suspicious. After all, Mayfield was a recent convert to Islam, and had given legal advice to one of the members of ‘The Portland Seven.’
Such circumstantial evidence would not normally be enough to get a search warrant. But explains Willamette Law School Professor, Norman Williams, under the relatively new USA Patriot Act, authorities could get a warrant by convincing a judge at the ‘Foreign Intelligence Security Court’ in Washington, that their hunch might lead to something.
Norman Williams: “What this particular case centers on is whether the U.S. can go to this special court in Washington DC and obtain an authorization to engage in warrentless wiretapping and searches of U.S. citizens in the U.S., without demonstrating to this court, that the citizens have been involved in illegal conduct or terrorist activities.”
In Mayfield’s case, authorities secured the warrant and then spent an undetermined number of days tapping his phones and searching his home and office.
Mayfield’s attorney, Elden Rosenthal, says this was while they had absolutely no proof that Mayfield had ever met a terrorist overseas, held that plastic bag, or done anything illegal at all.
Elden Rosenthal: “They were out to prosecute Brandon for the Madrid bombing, that’s what they were trying to do. They were trying gather evidence to prosecute him for a crime. But they didn’t have probable cause, so they went to the FISA court.”
After their surveillance, the FBI held Mayfield for two weeks — until it became clear he wasn’t “an agent of a foreign power.” He didn’t even have a valid passport.
The agency apologized and — after a lawsuit — promised to pay him $2 million. But Mayfield filed a second lawsuit, this one challenging the Patriot Act provisions which allowed his home to be searched without probable cause. It’s this suit, explains Elden Rosenthal, which has now been decided.
Eldon Rosenthal: “We are so proud of Judge Aiken, that she upheld the bill of rights, that she in effect told the Bush Administration, you can’t go that far, you can’t take away our cherished civil liberties.”
Brandon Mayfield is thrilled by the ruling.
Brandon Mayfield: “I was blown away. I was very happy. I was delighted.”
Mayfield, along with many other Muslims, is currently celebrating Ramadan — meaning he’s not eating or drinking during sun-up. So he says he’s tired, but happy.
Brandon Mayfield: “It’s not so much a personal victory as a victory for everyone in my mind. In other words, had somebody else brought this case, I would have been so happy to hear this.”
On the other side of the case, the U.S. Justice Department is remaining tight-lipped. National Security Division spokesman, Dean Boyd, did not say whether the government plans to appeal, but it doesn’t sound like the administration is giving up.
Dean Boyd: “Although the Justice Department is still reviewing the opinion, we have every confidence in the constitutionality of the Patriot Act provisions at issue in this particular case.”
Meanwhile, legal scholars like Willamette Law School professor, Norman Williams, have no doubt the case will be appealed up to the 9th Circuit — and probably the Supreme Court.