Barr Testifies For Limits On Government “Sneak And Peek” Searches

Testifies on Reauthorization of USA PATRIOT Act
May 3, 2005

Washington, D.C. (May 3, 2005) – Former congressman Bob Barr, chair of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, today urged Congress to amend intrusive provisions of the USA Patriot Act during an oversight hearing of a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing specifically examined certain controversial portions of the law, many of which are due to sunset on December 31, 2005.

“I am here because I am confident that we can honor both the letter and the spirit of our Fourth Amendment freedoms by bringing the Patriot Act in line with the Constitution," Barr said. “It is my hope that my testimony today will help shape the ongoing Patriot Act debate, the result of which I believe will be an important part of the 109th Congress.”

Barr’s testimony focused primarily on section 213, the “sneak and peek” provision, which allows federal agents to secretly search people’s homes and businesses and seize their personal property without notice for days, weeks or even months. Although it is one of the more controversial provisions of the act, section 213 is not due to sunset at the end of this year.

“It is imperative that, if not replaced entirely, section 213 be amended and given a new expiration date,” Barr told the committee. “The House especially has reason to support amendments to the law, as the sneak and peek provision was imposed upon you by the Senate in a last-minute revision to the bill this very committee produced.”

During his testimony, Barr noted serious concerns about the right to privacy. “The American people have come to understand that giving federal law enforcement authority for secret searches of their homes and businesses has nothing to do with keeping them safe from terrorism. The idea of strangers, including government agents, secretly entering the privacy of people’s homes and examining their personal possessions is a threat to the fundamental freedoms our Fourth Amendment was written to protect,” Barr testified.

Despite the gross violation of constitutional rights, these secret searches are being used increasingly by the Justice Department - up from approximately 2.7 times per month in April 2003 to 4.7 times a month in January 2005 - and often in non-terrorism investigations. “We simply cannot allow these extraordinary powers granted by the Patriot Act to become ordinary, garden-variety tools of law enforcement,” said Barr.

To correct and prevent these abuses of power, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances supports the bipartisan Security and Freedom Enhanced (SAFE) Act of 2005. The SAFE Act would retain the expanded authorities created by the Patriot Act, but would also place modest - but important - checks and balances on those authorities. According to Barr, the SAFE Act would fix two “fundamental flaws” of section 213:

* Currently, section 213 fails to set a time limit on delayed notification of sneak and peek warrants, meaning victims of secret searches could remain unaware for days, weeks or months. The Safe Act would limit the period of delayed notification of a secret search to seven days, allowing that period to be renewed in increments only as necessary.

* As it stands, vague language in the law makes it extremely easy for federal agents to obtain sneak and peek warrants, even in cases unrelated to terrorism. The Safe Act would amend the criteria used to merit such searches, thus protecting the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.

“Attorney General Gonzales has said that he welcomes a full and informed debate on the Patriot Act, and this debate cannot occur in earnest until the government provides Congress and the American public with critical information about its use,” Barr testified.

“There is still a great deal we do not know: How many times has section 213 been used in ordinary criminal investigations, having no relation to the war on terror? How often has it been employed against ordinary citizens rather than foreign suspects? How many of these secret searches have actually resulted in convictions, and how many of those convicted were terrorists? What happens to the contents of such secret searches, the personal property of American citizens, if no charges are brought?

“I encourage Congress to seek answers to these crucial questions, as well as the many other critical concerns posed by the Patriot Act, before answering the Administration’s call to reauthorize the law in full.”

To obtain a full copy of his testimony, please visit (www.checksbalances.org).


 


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