Federal Judge Says Patriot Act Still Too Vague

by Linda Deutsch, Associated Press, July 30, 2005

The injunction Judge Collins provided to the Ilankai Tamil Sangam and the World Tamil Coordinating Committee to provide humanitarian assistance in Tamil areas of Sri Lanka and political advocacy for the Tamil cause in the United States are good reasons for those wishing to engage in these activities to join the ITS or the WTCC.

In spite of congressional efforts to clarify portions of the U.S. Patriot Act, some provisions dealing with foreign terrorist organizations remain too vague to be understood by a person of average intelligence and thus are unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins found that Congress failed to remedy all the problems she defined in a 2004 ruling that struck down key provisions of the act.  Her decision was handed down Thursday and released Friday.

Collins was responding to a petition from the Center for Constitutional Rights that sought to clear the way for U.S. groups and individuals to assist political organizations in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

"In particular, plaintiffs emphasize the desperately increased need for aid following the tsunamis that devastated the Sri Lanka region in December 2004, especially in rebel Tamil areas along the northeast coast," the ruling noted.

In Sri Lanka, the plaintiffs said, they wanted to provide training in the presentation of claims to mediators and international bodies for tsunami-related aid.  They also seek to offer legal expertise in negotiating peace agreements between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government and to engage in political advocacy on behalf of Tamils living in Sri Lanka

Without a clear definition of what aid is permissible, the plaintiffs argued that those who provide assistance could be subject to 15-year prison terms.

"This law is so sweeping that it makes it a crime for our clients to provide medical services to tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka and to provide assistance in human rights advocacy to the Kurds in Turkey," said David Cole, the attorney and Georgetown University law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Humanitarian Law Project.

David Cole, 2003

"I'm pleased that the court has recognized that people have a right to support lawful, nonviolent activities of groups the secretary of state has put on a blacklist," Cole said.

In a mixed ruling, the judge upheld the government position on a challenge to the ban on providing "personnel" to the named groups.  The judge held that a congressional amendment to the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, or IRTPA, in 2004 provided a clearer definition of "personnel."

"The court finds that the IRTPA amendment sufficiently narrows the term 'personnel' to provide fair notice of the prohibited conduct," the judge said.

With rulings favoring both sides, Cole said he was sure both sides would appeal.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department was pleased that the judge ruled in favor of the government in four out of five claims.

"The judge's ruling affects only one small aspect of the Patriot Act and it does not change the facts surrounding the act," Scolinos said.  "There has not been one verified civil liberties complaint against the act since its inception and it has successfully broken down walls between the intelligence and the law enforcement community."

The judge noted in her ruling that the procedural history of the cases is "somewhat complex," dating back to 1998 before the Patriot Act was drafted.

The current case centers on two groups, the Liberation Tigers, which seeks a separate homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan, a political organization representing the interests of the Kurds in Turkey.

Both groups have been designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations.

The judge's ruling addressed the prohibition on providing material support or resources, including "training,""expert advice or assistance,""personnel" and "service" to designated foreign terrorist organizations.

"The court finds that the terms 'training,''expert advice or assistance' in the form of 'specialized knowledge' and 'service' are impermissibly vague under the Fifth Amendment," the judge concluded at the end of 42-page decision.  She enjoined the government from enforcing those provisions as they apply to the groups named in the lawsuit.

She addressed each term individually and said Congress' amendments fail to cure the vagueness problem.

"Even as amended, the statute fails to identify the prohibited conduct in a manner that persons of ordinary intelligence can reasonably understand," the ruling said.

She issued an injunction against enforcement of the sections she found vague but specified that her ruling applies only to the named plaintiffs and does not constitute a nationwide injunction.



Posted August 2, 2005