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The Patriot Act: Probable Cause and Due Process

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Both liberal and conservative groups alike have criticized the U.S. Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, because they say it violates probable cause and due process rights protected by the Constitution of the United States.

The Patriot Act significantly expanded the power of U.S. law enforcement by giving them unprecedented authority to track and follow terrorists. The act also gave terrorism investigators access to evidence-gathering tools that agents in criminal inquiries have been able to use for years, but some see these powers as being unconsitutional.

All agree that the government must be able to protect its citizens from terrorism, but the issue is how to do that without eroding the civil liberties of all citizens.

Latest Developments

Attorney General John Ashcroft has released a report to the media that he said proves that the law's most controversial provisions should be renewed before they expire in December 2005. "The report provides a mountain of evidence that the Patriot Act continues to save lives," the attorney general said.

The legislation, does nothing to limit the freedoms of innocent people, Ashcroft has said in recent speeches. "America is more secure today than it was two years ago," he said in Louisville KY. "America is safer today than it was two years ago. America is freer today than at any time in the history of human freedom."

Since his State of the Union address in January, President Bush has portrayed the Patriot Act as a linchpin in his anti-terrorism efforts, and he has insisted that Congress renew 16 provisions that will expire next year.

Background

The Patriot Act basically extends the government's foreign intelligence surveillance powers over potential "domestic" terrorists, including American citizens. Several of its more controversial provisions include:

  • Federal agents may conduct surveillance and searches against U.S. citizens without "probable cause" to suspect criminal activity. The targeted person is not notified and cannot challenge the action.

  • Agents can conduct "sneak-and-peek" searches without prior notice in common domestic crime investigations. Before the Patriot Act, courts required law enforcement to "knock and announce" themselves before conducting searches.

  • Government agents now have access to any person's business or personal records. These include library records, book-buying habits, medical, marital counseling or psychiatric files, business records, Internet habits, and credit reports.

  • The government no longer has to give notice, obtain a warrant or a subpoena, or show probable cause that a crime has been committed. Persons turning over personal data to the government (such as librarians, co-workers or neighbors) are prohibited, under threat of federal criminal prosecution, from telling anyone they did so.

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