Does the Patriot Act Protect or Harass?

The debate over the landmark national security law and civil liberty safeguards

By Susan Ladika | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 30, 2024 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Mark J. Kriger, Leonard M. Niehoff and Shereef H. Akeel

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Note: The USA PATRIOT Act was originally signed into law by President George W. Bush following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Among other things, the controversial Act gave new power to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA), to engage in surveillance activities.

The PATRIOT Act included sunset provisions, making it subject to reauthorization. Congress reauthorized portions of the PATRIOT Act in subsequent years, including reforms through the 2015 USA Freedom Act. However, the Act expired on its latest sunset date in 2020 when the U.S. House of Representatives indefinitely postponed voting on a Senate bill to reauthorize the Act.

During its earlier years, civil rights attorneys shared insights with us on the PATRIOT Act’s impact.

[The PATRIOT Act] drastically expands the ability of the government to track one’s habits and lifestyle.

Mark J. Kriger

Broadened Law Enforcement Authority Following Enactment of the PATRIOT Act

Most computer users forward dozens of electronic communications every month without thinking. But Leonard M. Niehoff, a media and advertising attorney at Honigman in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says this simple act might grab the attention of government officials seeking suspicious individuals under the PATRIOT Act.

Even he has become a witness in a case because of a series of exchanged emails that eventually reached an American citizen he thinks is under government scrutiny. “A lot of people don’t warrant surveillance,” he says, “yet they wind up under the microscope due to their connection to other individuals or organizations.”

A lot of people don’t warrant surveillance, yet they wind up under the microscope due to their connection to other individuals or organizations.

Leonard M. Niehoff

Concerns Over Due Process and the Impact on Human Life

The American government can set up roving wiretaps and can tap any phone they want to through the PATRIOT Act, which also allows the government to keep tabs on visited websites and books an individual reads, says Mark J. Kriger, a criminal defense attorney at LaRene & Kriger in Detriot, Michigan. “It drastically expands the ability of the government to track one’s habits and lifestyle.”

If the government monitors a person’s doctor visits, the law prohibits the doctor from telling the patient that the government has made inquiries.

[Provisions of the PATRIOT Act] defy the whole principle behind patient-physician privilege.

Shereef H. Akeel

Reining in Electronic Surveillance

“That defies the whole principle behind patient-physician privilege,” says Birmingham attorney Shereef H. Akeel of Akeel & Valentine in Troy, Michigan. To those who don’t find it disturbing that federal law enforcement can peek into their personal lives, Niehoff cautions: “The problem is that once you give the government authority, it’s hard to get it back.”

Anytime you feel your constitutional rights have been violated, consider consulting a reputable civil rights attorney. For more information on this area of law, including limits on law enforcement agencies, search warrants, or judicial review, see our civil rights overview and content related to criminal law.

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