- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

About 165 communities nationwide have passed resolutions condemning the USA Patriot Act. But one little city in northern California has taken its opposition a step further, making it a misdemeanor for city employees to cooperate in enforcing the federal antiterrorism measure.

In March, Arcata officials set down a $57 fine for those who don’t “promptly notify the city manager” if federal law-enforcement authorities contact them seeking help in an investigation, interrogation or arrest under the provisions of the act.

But a city fine would be nothing compared with the penalties an Arcata official faces for obstructing a federal probe, a Justice Department spokesman said.

“Obviously, the folks [in Arcata] who voted for this ordinance haven’t read the law,” said Justice Department spokesman Mark C. Corallo.

“This is not the FBI or the Justice Department acting unilaterally,” Mr. Corallo said. “Just like any other criminal investigation, these are tools that are not just legal, but they are constitutional and they are tools that have been available for law-enforcement authorities for decades.”

The Patriot Act’s most-criticized provision, for so-called roving wiretaps, merely allows investigators to “track a terrorist, instead of having to get multiple warrants for every phone the guy uses,” Mr. Corallo explained.

Still, critics say, the reason so many communities are denouncing the Patriot Act is because they believe the measure — passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks — vastly expands the power of federal investigators, not only for investigating terrorism suspects, but also for probing into the lives of ordinary Americans.

Most of the resolutions being signed against the 340-page act — the acronym stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” — condemn its provisions that compel libraries and bookstores to assist federal investigators in monitoring the reading habits of suspects.

Timothy H. Edgar, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that a far more frightening provision of the Patriot Act is one that “allows investigators to sneak into your house with a warrant and conduct a search and not notify you until much later, if at all.”

Further, according to a report issued earlier this month by the ACLU, the act gives the FBI “access to highly personal ‘business records’ — including financial, medical, mental health, library and student records — with no meaningful judicial oversight.”

The report continues: “Federal officials actually can obtain a court order for records of the books you borrow from libraries or buy from bookstores, without showing probable cause of criminal activity or intent — and the librarian or bookseller cannot even tell you that the government is investigating what you read.”

Justice Department officials say such criticisms are arbitrary, noting that investigators still are required to get permission from a federal judge to obtain records about the reading habits of suspects. Mr. Corallo said the wave of objections to the Patriot Act has done little more than illustrate some Americans’ “incredible ignorance of federal law.”

But Arcata officials aren’t second-guessing themselves; they take pride in their city’s stance. “A lot of people are becoming more aware of the problems with the Patriot Act,” says Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas.

“We were the first to put it in our municipal code,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a proclamation; we have an ordinance saying you can’t engage in the Patriot Act where it violates people’s constitutional rights.”

Arcata, a town of about 16,000 nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco, made headlines as a haven of liberalism in the early 1990s when its City Council became first in the country with a Green Party majority. But Mr. Ornales and others point out that liberals aren’t the only ones objecting to the Patriot Act.

“From the NAACP to the NRA, people are working together on these resolutions,” says ACLU spokesman Damon Moglin, in reference to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Rifle Association. “We see this as being a true grass-roots response.”

The ACLU’s July 3 report says “more than 16 million people in 26 states have passed resolutions” condemning the Patriot Act, and that among them are some “traditionally conservative locales, such as Oklahoma City … Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont.”

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