What Everyone Should Know About the Patriot Act (But Still Doesn't)

Just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, a panicked Congress passed the "USA/Patriot Act," an overnight revision of the nation's surveillance laws that vastly expanded the government's authority to spy on its own citizens, while simultaneously reducing checks and balances on those powers like judicial oversight, public accountability, and the ability to challenge government searches in court.

The Patriot Act increases the government's power to spy in four areas

The Patriot Act increases the governments surveillance powers in four areas: Records searches. It expands the government's ability to look at records on an individual's activity being held by a third parties. (Section 215) Secret searches. It expands the government's ability to search private property without notice to the owner. (Section 213) Intelligence searches. It expands a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment that had been created for the collection of foreign intelligence information (Section 218). "Trap and trace" searches. It expands another Fourth Amendment exception for spying that collects "addressing" information about the origin and destination of communications, as opposed to the content (Section 214).

Why the Patriot Act's expansion of records searches is unconstitutional

Section 215 of the Patriot Act violates the Constitution in several ways. It: Violates the Fourth Amendment, which says the government cannot conduct a search without obtaining a warrant and showing probable cause to believe that the person has committed or will commit a crime. Violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech by prohibiting the recipients of search orders from telling others about those orders, even where there is no real need for secrecy. Violates the First Amendment by effectively authorizing the FBI to launch investigations of American citizens in part for exercising their freedom of speech. Violates the Fourth Amendmentby failing to provide notice - even after the fact - to persons whose privacy has been compromised. Notice is also a key element of due process, which is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.