Archive for Thursday, January 8, 2004

Commissioners poised to oppose Patriot Act

Lawrence could join chorus denouncing law

January 8, 2004


Lawrence city commissioners say they're ready to register their opposition to the USA Patriot Act -- but won't order city employees to violate the federal anti-terror law.

Commissioners made their stance known after a local group said it planned to ask for a resolution that would direct Lawrence Police and library employees to "refrain" from cooperating with federal authorities enforcing portions of the act.

"I won't support a draft that directs any city employees to violate federal law," Commissioner Boog Highberger said Wednesday. "But I am concerned about the act's impact on civil liberties."

Donald Phipps, a member of the Kansas Bill of Rights Defense Committee promoting the resolution, said his group would ask for commission approval of the resolution by the end of the month.

"We want to make sure to protect our citizens in Douglas County and Lawrence," Phipps said. "Much of the Bill of Rights has been gutted by the Patriot Act. It's very dangerous."

If passed, Lawrence would become the first city in Kansas to take a stand against the law; efforts also are under way in Dodge City and North Newton. But a declaration of noncompliance would be frowned upon by federal authorities.

"Certainly, we would strongly urge the city of Lawrence to oppose such provisions," said Blaine Rethmeier, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Civil liberties concerns

Congress passed the USA Patriot Act soon after the 9-11 attacks on America. It gives federal law enforcement authorities an array of expanded investigative powers, including:

We want to make sure to protect our citizens in Douglas County and
Lawrence. Much of the Bill of Rights has been gutted by the Patriot
Act. It&squot;s very dangerous." -- Donald Phipps, Kansas Bill of Rights
Defense Committee

We want to make sure to protect our citizens in Douglas County and Lawrence. Much of the Bill of Rights has been gutted by the Patriot Act. It's very dangerous." -- Donald Phipps, Kansas Bill of Rights Defense Committee

  • Broader wiretapping authority.
  • The ability to conduct secret search warrants, delaying notice to criminal suspects of such searches.
  • Allowing criminal investigators and intelligence officials greater authority to share information between agencies.

"One of the most important things the USA Patriot Act has done since 9-11 has been to break down barriers to communication," Rethmeier said. "It essentially allows us to build a larger law enforcement network."

But critics of the law say it has a chilling effect on civil liberties -- for instance, allowing federal investigators to obtain a suspect's library reading records. Other critics say the law allows intrusive investigation of peaceful groups by too broadly defining terrorism.

"The key thing is, we are very concerned about privacy," Phipps said. "We're very concerned about the idea that you're guilty until proven innocent."

More than 200 cities, towns and counties nationwide have passed resolutions and ordinances opposing the law. And last month, the National League of Cities urged Congress to repeal provisions in the act -- Lawrence officials skipped that meeting because of local budget pressures.

'Awareness is key'

The proposed resolution on the Kansas Bill of Rights Committee Web site would order police to refrain from assisting federal authorities in investigations and arrests that would violate the constitutional rights -- of free expression, for example, or to a fair trial -- of Lawrence residents.

Lawrence Police Sgt. Mike Pattrick declined comment on those provisions, saying, "We'll wait until the City Commission makes a request of us about the topic."

A spokesman for Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline also declined comment.

The resolution would order Lawrence public libraries to post warnings that patrons' records may be sought by federal investigators; Lawrence Public Library Director Bruce Flanders said checkout records already are destroyed immediately after books are returned.

"People's use of the library is very private and confidential," he said.

Congress enacted the Patriot Act by wide margins, 98-1 in the Senate and 357-66 in the House, and President Bush signed it into law on Oct. 26, 2001. The Department of Justice explains highlights of the act at¢ "The Patriot Act allows investigators to use the tools that were already available to investigate organized crime and drug trafficking. Many of the tools the act provides to law enforcement to fight terrorism have been used for decades to fight organized crime and drug dealers ...¢ "The Patriot Act facilitated information sharing and cooperation among government agencies so that they can better 'connect the dots.' The act removed the major legal barriers that prevented the law enforcement, intelligence, and national defense communities from talking and coordinating their work ...¢ "The Patriot Act updated the law to reflect new technologies and new threats ...¢ "The Patriot Act increased the penalties for those who commit terrorist crimes ... ."

And the resolution would require Lawrence authorities to notify suspects when federal authorities executed a secret search warrant; city officials also would be required to regularly seek and publicize information about federal investigations in Lawrence.

"It lets (Lawrence residents) know what steps the federal government has taken locally to spy on people," Phipps said. "Awareness is the key protection."

Rare move

Dick Kurtenbach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Kansas and Western Missouri, said most local government stands against the Patriot Act have been in the form of requests for repeal.

"The resolutions that talk about refraining from cooperation are certainly in the minority of the hundreds of resolutions that have passed," Kurtenbach said.

It appears a majority of Lawrence commissioners aren't willing to go down that road even though there's little support on the commission for the Patriot Act itself.

"If the proposal is that the city ask the federal government to reconsider all or parts of the Patriot Act, then I'm certainly willing to consider that," Mayor David Dunfield said. "If the idea is to ask the city not to enforce federal law, then I'm not interested in entertaining that at all."

"I can understand people's concerns about it," Commissioner Sue Hack said. "But I can also understand why it was put in place originally."

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