PATRIOTic Mission Creep


"New Terror Laws Used Vs. Common Criminals" reads the AP headline.

How is the PATRIOT Act is being stretched by law enforcement types? As Stan Lee used to say, "Read on MacDuff":

In the two years since law enforcement agencies gained fresh powers to help them track down and punish terrorists, police and prosecutors have increasingly turned the force of the new laws not on al-Qaida cells but on people charged with common crimes.

The Justice Department said it has used authority given to it by the USA Patriot Act to crack down on currency smugglers and seize money hidden overseas by alleged bookies, con artists and drug dealers.

Federal prosecutors used the act in June 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.

The most disturbing element of the story may be the charge leveled by a spokesman for a criminal defense attorneys organization:

"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, a spokesman for 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."

Which should leave PATRIOT Act defenders and critics alike wondering where we'll be in a few more years' time, especially if the sunset provisions in the original act are amended.

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  1. Thanks Umbriel. Wonder how far this slope may slide?

  2. You’d better watch out Nick, Ramesh is gonna be all over your ass for this one.

  3. The idiot prosecutor either is unaware or doesn’t care that any substance that has the capability of causing death or injury by definition contains toxic chemicals. How else would it cause the injury or death (other than by hitting someone over the head with a barrel of it, of course).

    The PATRIOT Act thus manages, through incredibly overbroad drafting, to define damn near every substance used or produced in an industrial society as a weapon of mass destruction. For example, gasoline fits this definition nicely, making every service station and 7-11 the accomplice of al Qaeda, I suppose.

  4. Anon at 9:33:

    Just today on my MSN homepage, this link:

    A private (foreign born, naturalized) US citizen has been blacklisted at their former bank by having a PATRIOT records request undertaken against them. So if you’re flagged incorrectly by your credit bureau, for example, you can complain to a higher authority and make things right. If you’re flagged incorrectly by the FBI, your life becomes an incontrovertable nightmare.

  5. We can conclude by Anon @ 9:33’s silence that he has conceded the point(s).

  6. “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.”

    Correction: “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 criminals.”

    Someone with a pipe bomb…currency smugglers. You have a problem with more effective prosecution of criminals?

    If you can cite some instances where a non-criminal has been harmed by aggressive implementation of PATRIOT, I’m all ears. But implying it unfairly hampers the ability of criminals to evade justice won’t cut it.

  7. Hard to see why somebody monkeying around with a pipe bomb isn’t a fit subject for anti-terrorism laws.

    Of course, everyone knew when it was passed that PATRIOT would be used outside of terrorism; it consisted mostly of a wish list of provisions that prosecutors wanted long before 9/11 and hadn’t been able to get passed. Except for the political opportunism, PATRIOT has very little to do with terrorism.

  8. It is interesting to note however that those who normally argue themselves blue in the face attempting to defend the over reaching, plenary powers of a monolithic nanny state get a little miffed (and rightly so) when the bureaucracy gets, well – you know – a little too big government bureaucracy like.

  9. If you can cite some instances where a non-criminal has been harmed by aggressive implementation of PATRIOT

    perhaps that would be possible, If it wasn’t carried out in “secret”

  10. I am a supporter of better security against terrorism. But in spite of that–nay, because of that–I am strongly opposed to using provisions of the Patriot Act against gambling and other sins or crimes. Anybody who tries to use provisions of the Patriot Act to deal with anything other than terrorism should be branded a traitor.

    I am outraged.

  11. I remember a kid cherry bombing a toilet at the high school I went to. Is that terrorism? Is a kid throwing a rock through a window terrorism?

    Fact is, just as with “hate crimes”, there’s already laws on the books against these activities and people are prosecuted every day under well tested rules of law. Now, though, when a prosecutor “knows” a guy did something but can’t prove it, he can pull out Patriot and ream him, anyway.

  12. A sincere thanks to all at Reason for doing their best to publicize some of the existing and potential abuses of the Patriot Act. This reminds me so much of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 it’s sickening… “mission creep”, political abuse, the opportunistic exploitation of fear being used to erode civil liberites…
    With any luck, constant pressure and publicity regarding the Patriot Act will prevent the sunset provisions from being amended, and it can follow the Alien and Sedition Acts into the apocrypha of
    bad laws. If and when this happens, Americans will owe much gratitude to Reason for playing such a major role in its opposition.

    Can I have a T-shirt now? 🙂

  13. What’s happening right now is that PATRIOT is being used to impose much stiffer penalties for crimes that were already on the books. Drug offenses are starting to get prosecuted under the law’s “chemical weapons” provisions–which if I understand correctly carry sentences of 12 years to life for involvement in manufacture and distribution, and life without parole if someone dies from the “chemical weapon”.

    I was listening to a radio story this morning about a Greenpeace ship that’s traveling along the Alsakan coast to raise awareness of plans to resume logging in the Tongass Preserve. I wondered, given some Greenpeace actions against whaling vessels, whether PATRIOT would soon be used to define them as a terrorist group and justify stripping American Greenpeace members of their citizenship.

    It’s occurred to me before in the time since PATRIOT passed, but it hasn’t stopped feeling strange. The Patriot Act is not just a new set of sentences for a few crimes; it’s a fundamental shift in the relationship between the government and the people.

  14. anon @ 9:33 AM

    What part of “alleged” don’t you understand? I sure can’t understand why asset seizure before a guilty verdict has ever been allowed by the courts.

  15. Anon @ 9:33 –

    It’s not about non-criminals being harmed by new implementation of Patriot, it’s the fact that crimes that would carry a much lesser charge are now treated as terrorism.

    The guy who operated a meth lab out of his basement and was charged with making items of WMD is a perfect case. Is it illegal to make meth? Certainly. Is meth the equivalent of an h-bomb? Um… hardly.

    This is just another way to let legislators and law enforcement step-up the penalties of pet crimes that they just personally don’t like – and that is the point of the arguments that you hear on this board and any other sane and open-minded forum.

  16. Umbriel,

    I believe forfeiture has roots in administrative law (or civil law) practice going back to the prerogative courts, and was imported into the U.S. via admiralty and customs law. Of course, that doesn’t detract from what you pointed out; there may be some overlap between the two explanations.

  17. My family used to own a homemade cannon; if, when we had fired it, typically on Bastille Day and the Fourth of July, it had harmed someone, could it be construed as a WMD under this law?

  18. Jean Bart,

    Did it have a protruding pistol grip or a bayonet lug?

  19. “Mass” don’t mean what it used to mean.

  20. Once you allow a given set of behaviors for or against a certain group of people, the definition of that group will expand to include as many people as you want to be the objects of that behavior (as you can get away with).

    (As Neal Stephenson has a character point out, hypocrisy at least shows you’ve got some morals, but in practice it more like what La Rochefoucauld said [originally in the Freedom language]: it is the tribute vice pays to virtue.)

  21. fyodor — I think asset seizure law mutated out of “in rem” proceedings found in property law, whereby legal action could be taken against a piece of property when the owner was outside of the court’s jurisdiction or could not be found. I think its most common use was in the seizure of property in order to pay accumulated taxes on that property when the absentee landlord was unable to be found, or was actively stonewalling the tax court.

    The application of the principal as a means of bypassing the constitutional protections that people enjoy (but allegedly “property” does not…) is just another “inventive” application of the law that courts of previous generations would likely have laughed at.

  22. Jason Lug,

    No, but it did fire rather large steel ball bearings. It had to be fired into lower 200 acres of our property to be used safely.

  23. “Prosecutor Jerry Wilson says he isn’t abusing the law, which defines chemical weapons of mass destruction as ‘any substance that is designed or has the capability to cause death or serious injury’ and contains toxic chemicals.”

    I would argue that Lake Erie qualifies as a WMD. It is a substance, it has the capability to (and has) caused death or serious injury, and it contains toxic chemicals.

    Now, how do I report it to the WMD monitors at the UN?

  24. Neb Okla:

    Don’t forget, Lake Erie is filled with dangerous, deadly, DiHydrogen Monoxide!

    From the FAQ @

    “Each year, Dihydrogen Monoxide is a known causative component in many thousands of deaths and is a major contributor to millions upon millions of dollars in damage to property and the environment. Some of the known perils of Dihydrogen Monoxide are: Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.
    Prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage.
    Excessive ingestion produces a number of unpleasant though not typically life-threatening side-effects.
    DHMO is a major component of acid rain.
    Gaseous DHMO can cause severe burns.
    Contributes to soil erosion.
    Leads to corrosion and oxidation of many metals.
    Contamination of electrical systems often causes short-circuits.
    Exposure decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes.
    Found in biopsies of pre-cancerous tumors and lesions.
    Often associated with killer cyclones in the U.S. Midwest and elsewhere.
    Thermal variations in DHMO are a suspected contributor to the El Nino weather effect.”

    Some unscrupulous companies make this substance available in bottles to ANYONE, even CHILDREN!
    Shocking, really!


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