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Federal judge rules part of Patriot Act unconstitutional

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge in Los Angeles has struck down a provision of the post-September 11 USA Patriot Act, saying it was unconstitutional.

The court said a paragraph that prohibits providing "expert advice or assistance" to designated international terrorist organizations is a violation of the First and Fifth Amendments because it is impermissibly vague.

"It was in part a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution which allows free association and free speech and also the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which grants due process before criminalizing someone," said Ralph Fertig, president of the Humanitarian Law Project, the organization that brought the suit.

The Humanitarian Law Project filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs who sought to provide assistance to Kurdish refugees living in Turkey.

U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins said the provision, which updated a 1996 counterterrorism law banning material support for terrorism, offered no distinction between support for violent and non-violent activities.

"Because the kind of advice we give to the Kurdistan Workers Party is advice on how to deal with the United Nations -- how to go to legislative bodies, how to pursue peaceful means of bringing to the attention of the world the plight in which they find themselves," Fertig said in defense of the assistance.

Those convicted under that provision may receive sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

The Associated Press reported that the ruling was handed down late Friday and made available Monday. It was the judge's second major ruling to undercut anti-terrorist laws in recent months; Collins authored a decision upheld in part by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December, the AP reported. (December ruling)

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo promptly issued a statement defending the provision.

"The provision at issue in today's decision was a modest amendment to a pre-existing antiterrorism law that was designed to deal with real threats caused by support of terrorist groups," Corallo said. "By targeting those who provide material support by providing 'expert advice or assistance' the law made clear that Americans are threatened as much by the person who teaches a terrorist to build a bomb as by the one who pushes the button."

The Justice Department stressed the issue is already part of a broader review the government is seeking in a federal appeals court. The government is asking the full San Francisco-based 9th Circuit to hear an appeal of a ruling by a three judge panel, which invalidated portions of the 1996 law prohibiting material support for terrorists.

The law defines material support or resources to terrorists as "currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe houses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel, transportation, and other physical assets, except medicine or religious materials."

The specific inclusion of "monetary instruments" and "expert advice or assistance" were added to the original law by Section 805 of the Patriot Act.

Emily Whitfield, American Civil Liberties Union National Media Relations director, said in an AP report that more than 230 communities around the country, most recently Los Angeles, have passed resolutions calling for the repeal of certain controversial sections of the act.

Meanwhile, the AP reported that another challenge to the USA Patriot Act is pending in Detroit, Michigan, where the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the act gives federal agents unlimited and unconstitutional authority to secretly seize library reading lists and other personal records.

CNN Radio Correspondent Ninette Sosa contributed to this report.

Copyright 2004 CNN. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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