ACLU Opposes 'Ohio Patriot Act'

Columbus Alive | March 3, 2005
The American Civil Liberties Union has been one of the most consistent critics of the post-9/11 legislation Congress childishly named the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (its friends and many enemies simply call it the Patriot Act).

The ACLU has found a lot to hate about the Patriot Act—like the power it gives the feds to check out your library records or sneak into your house without ever informing you—though much of the law is perfectly reasonable and agreeable to the civil liberties group.

But they can’t say the same thing for Ohio Senate Bill 9, the so-called Ohio Patriot Act.

The bill, which was introduced by state Senator Jeff Jacobson, a Republican from the Dayton area, would add a laundry list of new offenses to Ohio law, including possession or criminal use of a chemical or biological weapon; assembly or possession of chemicals for the manufacture of a chemical or biological weapon; and money laundering in support of terrorism.

More troubling to the ACLU, the bill requires all state employees to comply with the federal Patriot Act and any executive order from the President of the United States pertaining to homeland security, and gives law enforcement the power to request the name, address and birth date of anyone they suspect “is committing, has committed or is about to commit a criminal offense.” Refusal to comply would be a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

Oh, and it would be illegal to possess a “powerful laser...that has the strength to cause death or serious physical harm to a person or to cause serious physical harm to property”—unless you have a laser license, of course.

Jeff Gamso, the legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said there’s only one section of the entire 30-page bill that makes sense to him. That’s the section that deals with security at small general aviation airports, which, as far as he can tell, nobody seems to be paying much attention to and which seems like an invitation for trouble.

As for the rest of the bill, Gamso sees nothing but problems, and he dismisses it as serving no positive function.

The ID request can come from law enforcement officers at any place designated a “terrorist sensitive site,” Gamso said, “and that includes airports, train stations, public utilities and anyplace else so designated by the Department of Public Safety.” In other words, anywhere.

“Now think abut this for a minute,” Gamso continued. “The stadium for the Ohio State-Michigan game is a terrorist sensitive site. If you put 100,000 people in one place, it’s a target. Aside from the gross inefficiency of trying to collect 100,000 people’s identification, why should they have to provide it and what will that accomplish?”

What about a large mosque or cathedral, which could reasonably be seen as “terrorist sensitive”? Would Ohioans need to show ID to go worship?

Or worse, a federal building during a protest could easily be identified as a terrorist-sensitive site. Gamso said giving police the power to require ID of protestors could chill free speech and discourage dissenters from hitting the streets.

Another chilling provision links a municipality’s access to homeland security funding to whether it “enacts any ordinance, policy, directive, rule, or resolution that hinders or prevents state or local employees from complying with” the federal Patriot Act.

This is apparently a response to the anti-Patriot Act resolutions passed by cities around the country establishing “Bill of Rights Protections Zones” or simply raising questions about the Patriot Act.

And there’s more. “There’s a provision that says that any state or local government employee must comply with the USA Patriot Act,” Gamso said. “Well, duh, that’s the law, of course they have to. And [they must comply with] any executive order promulgated by the president regarding homeland security, regardless of whether it is illegal to do so... It’s an absurd provision, and one that’s impossible to do, forcing you to decide I’m going break this law or break that law.”

The state’s own fiscal analysis of the bill also offers a dim assessment of it, stating that “acts of terrorism and support for terrorism, as defined in the bill, have historically been very rare in the state of Ohio... Should acts of terrorism as defined in the bill occur, it is most likely that the federal government would take the lead in such matters under its terrorism laws and assume the associated investigative, prosecutorial, adjudication and sanctioning costs.”

And then there’s the lasers.

In November last year the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned law enforcement officials to be on the lookout for terrorists with lasers, which they suspected could be used to blind airline pilots as they’re coming into land.

The most readily available sort of lasers are the laser pointers used by lecturing college professors and irritating teenagers in movie theaters, but these are almost impossible to use to blind a pilot. Other options would include “dazzler” weapons, which the U.S., Russian and Chinese militaries have all experimented with, or the sorts of high-powered lasers that would be used for outdoor light shows.

The Ohio bill says that “No person shall knowingly acquire, have, carry, or use a powerful laser without first obtaining a license from the Department of Public Safety,” making it a fifth-degree felony to be in “unlawful possession of a powerful laser.”

Even the laser provision is objectionable to the ACLU of Ohio, since, as Gamso explained, it makes it illegal to have a laser for non-industrial, non-research related purposes, no matter what you use it for. “What are we penalizing, the possession or the misuse of the laser?”

Jacobson’s office is hearing Gamso and other critics’ concerns loud and clear, and is taking them into consideration. The bill is still being hammered out in the Criminal Justice Committee, so it may be a little early for the ACLU to start shooting it down.

“I don’t know what’s going to get in and what’s going to get out,” explained Greg Saul, legislative aide to Jacobsen. “With legislation, you introduce it and that’s why it goes through the process. Changes will be made to it.”

Some of the concerns the ACLU has brought up are among the ones Jacobsen’s office is still working on, Saul said. The language concerning outlawing resolutions critical of the Patriot Act, for example, will be cleared up: “We just don’t want them to pass something that says they won’t comply with the law… There’s a difference between saying you don’t agree with something and saying you actually won’t enforce something.”

And as for the lasers, “That’s one of the sections that’s going to get a lot of work,” Saul said. “Instead of outlawing possession of a powerful laser, we’re going to go the route of what the person is using it for, [if it’s] for a malicious intent.”

Saul said Jacobsen was inspired to tackle the issue after reading about terrorism efforts around the country and “lasers in the suburban Cleveland area targeting airplanes and the plot to blow up the Columbus mall.”

The particular legislation was heavily influenced by a similar state law passed in New York last summer, and the nickname “Ohio Patriot Act” belies its true intention. Relatively little of it has to do with the Patriot Act, Saul said; the legislators have actually been calling it “Senate Bill 9” or “The Anti-Terrorism Initiative.”

Despite the number of objections, Gamso said he’s resigned to the fact that some version of the bill will pass in the future.

Saul pointed out that it’s bill number nine, and normally the first 10 are seen as high-priority bills. He said Jacobsen’s confident it will pass the Senate with support from both sides of the aisle at some point.

To fight it, the ACLU has been encouraging its members to write their senators and will be hosting special programs around the state to discuss it, like one at Sunrise Academy in Hilliard this Saturday evening.

“I have no reason to doubt that his motives are above board and probably that he really thinks that something really needs to be done,” Gamso said of Jacobsen and his bill. “And that’s the problem. We have a sense something needs to be done, so let’s do something… The right approach is to say, ‘What is it that we need to do? What will actually make us safer and not infringe on our liberty unreasonably and if there is such a thing, let’s do that.’ Instead of, ‘Let’s do something and we’ll sort it out later.’”

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