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U.S. Patriot Act — Protection Against Attack or Invasion of Privacy?

In the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, Congress passed the Patriot Act. At the time, the Patriot Act was publicized as a necessary means of protecting a vulnerable nation. The fact that the law allowed the government to intrude on Americans’ civil liberties took an unfortunate backseat to the fear and anger triggered by the tragic events.

The law was intended to fight terrorism. But, predictably, law enforcement often relies on the Patriot Act to investigate crimes that fall far outside the scope of terrorism, such as drug, computer, money laundering and fraud crimes.

Under the Patriot Act, law enforcement has authority to:

  • Engage in searches without a warrant that do not meet the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment
  • Review records about your activities that are held by other parties, including doctors, libraries, schools and Internet service providers
  • Conduct secret searches of your private property without your permission or knowledge
  • Gather foreign intelligence information without showing that you are an agent of a foreign power, as previously required by law
  • Trace the origins and destination of your communications

The Patriot Act does not require law enforcement agents to show probable cause that you committed a crime, only that the search is tied to an ongoing terrorism investigation. Gag order provisions make it difficult to determine what transpired during an investigation and, unless you are charged, to even know you were the subject of a criminal investigation.

The Fourth Amendment protects your rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. More than two centuries of Supreme Court decisions have strengthened these constitutional rights. During the past decade, the Patriot Act has interfered with the guarantees granted by the Constitution. But the Constitution is still the rule of the nation.

If you have been charged with an offense, an experienced criminal defense attorney can evaluate the police’s investigative tactics for constitutional violations. Even if law enforcement followed the Patriot Act provisions, you may have a valid constitutional challenge to admissibility of the evidence.

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