Watching Justice. An Eye on the Department of Justice
Home   About Watching Justice   Contact   Help   Site Map
What's New Resources and Commentary Events
Judge Strikes Down Patriot Act Surveillance Provision
View all Updates
Watching Justice
October 4, 2004

A federal district court judge in Manhattan has struck down a controversial surveillance provision of the Patriot Act, saying it was an unconstitutional grant of unchecked power to obtain private information about citizens.

On September 29, 2004, Judge Victor Marrero invalidated a measure that gave the government the authority to issue subpoenas requiring Internet service providers to provide personal information about their subscribers. The ruling came in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against such subpoenas, which are called "national security letters."

Under the terms of the Patriot Act, passed in October 2001, such subpoenas could be issued without court review. The law also appeared to forbid the recipient companies from disclosing that they had received the request.

The judge invalidated that section of the law, saying it violated both First Amendment guarantees protecting free speech and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. Calling the provision "unique in American law," the judge said the law had "no place in our open society."

It is unclear how many such subpoenas have been issued. A list obtained by the ACLU during the litigation covered the 14 months after the law was passed and was six pages long, but the recipient companies' names were blacked out.

The subpoenas required companies to produce customers' names, addresses, credit card information and details of their Internet use.

The judge stayed his ruling for 90 days in order to give the Bush Administration an opportunity to appeal. Officials at the Justice Department have characterized the Patriot Act as central to their anti-terrorism efforts. They have announced their intention to appeal the ruling, stating in a press release that the decision, "...takes away a tool for fighting terrorism that the Congress has authorized."

Civil liberties advocates hailed the ruling. Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said the ruling was "a stunning victory against John Ashcroft‘s Justice Department" and would reinforce another case the group has brought against a separate provision of the law in federal court in Michigan. In that case, the ACLU is challenging a provision that allows the FBI to get a court order to force any organization to turn over tangible evidence. Prior to the Patriot Act, investigators seeking such evidence had to convince a court that the organizations or people were spies or terrorists for a foreign government.

The ruling can be found here.

Related information: Criminal Division | Federal Bureau of Investigation | Office of Legal Counsel | U.S. Attorneys | Civil Liberties | National Security
Join Our Email List. Get periodic updates from Watching Justice. Enter your email address in the text field that follows.