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Publication Date: Friday, May 16, 2003

City edges toward Patriot Act stance City edges toward Patriot Act stance (May 16, 2003)

Council members investigate local impact

By Anna Thompson

After a lengthy discussion of the controversial federal law, the city council Tuesday decided to hold off on taking a stance on the Patriot Act.

A much-debated package of anti-terrorism laws passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act has been a flashpoint for civil libertarians who say it infringes on individuals' right to privacy.

While council members expressed serious reservations about the Act, they decided to wait for more information on the law's local effects before taking a stance.

Some council members said they would like to have more information than was provided in the initial background report prepared by Council member Matt Neely, who brought the Patriot Act issue to the council. Council member Rosemary Stasek said she needed to see more specifically how city employees could be forced to respond to federal guidelines. "There is nothing here that tells me how this affects us as a city," said Stasek.

The federal government passed the U.S. Patriot Act on Oct. 26, 2001. It creates new crimes -- like punishing those involved in harboring terrorists -- in addition to new punishments, like sentencing some terrorists to lifelong parole.

The legislation also eases government access to confidential information, and expands the government's right to e-mail surveillance. For individuals, the act gives the FBI and CIA greater authority to wiretap telephones and search homes without prior notification. City governments around the country, including San Francisco, have adopted resolutions opposing the Act.

Bill Bien, member of the city's Human Relations Commission, said that four counties in California have already opposed it. He pointed specifically to a provision that asks librarians to keep records of what people borrow from the library as having a direct impact on the city. "The Act does impinge on city services and our first amendment rights," said Bien.

City Attorney Michael Martello said the act also impacts search warrants. If the federal government violates constitutional law by performing an illegal property search, he said, then the city, if assisting with the search, would also be breaking the law.

Martello said his approach to the current situation would be to start by examining the Constitution in a broad manner. He will then look for local instances of how the city could be affected by Constitutional questions brought up by the Patriot Act. He estimated that this process would take about 30 days.

Council member Matt Pear said the council should be wary of the act. For him, some parts of the legislation -- like the surveillance of electronic communication -- are unacceptable. "Once our civil liberties are given up, they are gone forever," said Pear.

Hala Alshahwany, a human relations commissioner, said she worries about the Patriot Act's effects on civil liberties. She is an Iraqi-American who has been a Mountain View citizen for 18 years. When the recent war broke out in Iraq, she said, two men showed up at her front door and identified themselves as FBI agents. She had no previous notification of their visit and turned the men away. She worries that new immigrants who don't know their rights will face similar situations under the Patriot Act.

Neely expressed concern that not taking some sort of decisive action Tuesday would only strain already stretched staff resources. "We need to move forward and not make a decision to make a decision, but make a decision where we stand," said Neely.

But Council member Nick Galiotto said he did not want to rush into a general statement of disapproval of the act that would in turn mean nothing in real life. He did say, however, that the act was an invasion of civil liberties. "We are moving in a direction for the potential of abuse of police power without checks," he said. No date has been set for the council to revisit the issue.

E-mail Anna Thompson at


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