Key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which allow a secret court to authorize wiretaps and searches in criminal cases if the government says foreign intelligence is involved, violate constitutional standards that are more than 200 years old, says a federal judge’s ruling reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. Ruling in the case of Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney who was wrongly arrested in connection with the 2004 terrorist train bombings in Madrid, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken of Portland said he was subjected to surveillance under a 2001 law that flouted the constitutional requirement of a search warrant. She said the law is an unconstitutional evasion of the Fourth Amendment, which forbids searches in criminal cases unless officers first obtain a warrant from a judge, based on information that a crime has been committed and evidence is likely to be found in a specific place. She noted that federal agents, under the Patriot Act, don’t have to tell the secret court what items or information they are looking for.
It was the second judicial rebuff this month to the Patriot Act, the wide-ranging surveillance and detention law that was rushed through Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Three weeks ago, a federal judge in New York declared unconstitutional the FBI’s use of national security letters – subpoenas issued without court review – to obtain private communications records. The judge said the permanent gag orders imposed on the targets of the letters violate freedom of speech. Mayfield was arrested and held for two weeks in 2004, based on an FBI allegation that his fingerprint matched a print found at one of the train bombings in Spain that killed 191 people. He was released after authorities admitted they were mistaken, and settled a suit against the government for $2 million last year.