Since its establishment in 2001, civil rights groups have been up in arms about the Patriot Act. Though its aim is to bolster efforts to investigate terrorism, its broad reach and ambiguous language led many to worry that warrantless wiretaps and detention without charge could be used and abused by the American government.
While others cast aside these concerns as fear mongering, in the 16 years since the birth of the act, many have fallen victim to its harsh punishments and quick judgments. A result which author David Shipler claims is highly unconstitutional:
“Our system is founded on the premise that it is far worse to convict wrongly than to fail to convict at all.”
These fears were cemented in reality after the act’s first conviction. Mohamed Hussein was a Somali immigrant with no terror connections. His crime was running a money-forwarding service without the correct liscense. When federal prosecutors attempted to try him as a terrorist, even the presiding Judge expressed his shock and outrage.
However, it’s not just non-nationals that are at risk of false accusation. Just six years later, another innocent individual was detained under the charge of terrorism. Oregon-born attorney Brandon Mayfield was identified as the 2004 Madrid bomber after fingerprints found at the scene matched his records. Unfortunately for the FBI, the prints also matched six other suspects, but this didn’t stop them honing in on Mayfield.
After suffering years of illegal surveillance, including the invasion of his family residence on two separate occasions, the attorney was arrested. He was allowed no access to loved ones and little legal advice. Fortunately, Spanish authorities, who had always questioned Mayfield’s guilt, ran a re-test on the fingerprints that came out negative, ensuring his release.
This gross oversight marks the real danger of the Patriot Act; the one that has us quaking at airport security and hiding our online activity behind proxy servers in an attempt protect our rights. Government agencies make mistakes, and allowing legislation for charging crimes without proof means every innocent citizen is at risk of being the next victim.
Like most Americans, the mom of 16-year-old Ashton Lundeby was blissfully ignorant of this threat, until it turned up on her doorstep. Lundeby’s mother, Annete, a widow, was at home in her Granville County (North Carolina) residence with her two children and cat when 12 armed FBI agents burst through her door. Her outrage was understandable; no one expects to open their front door to rifles and federal agents.
Ashton was charged with making terrorist threats. However, even after establishing there was no bomb making material, the young boy was held in strict detention. Not only did his mother have no access, but she also revealed authorities were not even clear about the charge he faced.
Later, it was revealed Ashton ran a prank-call scheme phoning schools with bomb scares. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to two years without bail. Though his crime was relatively minor, the use of the Patriot Act ensured this wayward teen felt the full force of the law. Last time we checked, prank calling doesn’t equate terrorism.
It’s not just individual citizens whose lives have been affected by this policy. In 2003, multinational corporation Paypal found itself accused of violating the anti-terror law. Ludicrously, the offense didn’t even involve terrorism. The company was suspected of handling money from illegal gambling operations. Although they were not even the instigators of the crime, they were forced to pay $200,000 and change their policy.
Despite endless examples of its misuse, the Patriot Act remains unamended. Obama even signed a review of the policy in 2015, ensuring that warrantless surveillance and detention remained unthreatened. While federal prosecutors continue to use the law for minor offenses, no US citizen is exempt from potential arrest and privacy violation.
About the Author: Our guest blogger, Sandra O’Hare is an American liberal who was brought up in a law-abiding Christian household. After traveling the world, she began to question the acts of the US government. Since then, she has dedicated her time to uncovering and highlighting discrepancies and incongruences in our political system.