In the two years since the USA Patriot Act was passed, prosecutors are increasingly using it against people charged with common crimes, the Associated Press reports. The statute has been invoked in the cases of currency smugglers and seize money hidden overseas by alleged bookies, con artists and drug dealers.
Other examples: prosecutors used the act to file a charge of “terrorism using a weapon of mass destruction” against a California man after a pipe bomb exploded in his lap, wounding him as he sat in his car.
Legal defense groups complain. “Within six months of passing the Patriot Act, the Justice Department was conducting seminars on how to stretch the new wiretapping provisions to extend them beyond terror cases,” said Dan Dodson of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. “They say they want the Patriot Act to fight terrorism, then, within six months, they are teaching their people how to use it on ordinary citizens.”
Attorney General John Ashcroft completed a 16-city tour last week defending the law. Prosecutors have brought more than 250 criminal charges under it, with more than 130 convictions or guilty pleas.
Stefan Cassella of the the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture and money laundering section, said that while the Patriot Act focused on terrorism, Congress knew it contained provisions that had been on prosecutors’ wish lists for years. In one case, investigators used the law to recover $4.5 million from telemarketers accused of tricking elderly U.S. citizens into thinking they had won the Canadian lottery. In the past, the U.S. had to use international treaties and appeal for help from foreign governments to retrieve the cash, deposited in banks in Jordan and Israel. Now, they seized it from assets held by those banks in the United States. “These are appropriate uses of the statute,” Cassella said. “If we can use the statute to get money back for victims, we are going to do it.”