Sneak and peek’ bill rolls quietly through (Virginia) General Assembly

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PATRIOTIC? State Sen. Jennifer Wexton wants to endow Virginia law-enforcement agencies with Patriot Act powers.

PATRIOTIC? State Sen. Jen­nifer Wex­ton wants to endow Vir­ginia law-enforce­ment agen­cies with Patri­ot Act powers.

FA Update:  Vir­gini­a’s Repub­li­can-con­trolled Sen­ate and House have enrolled (passed) Sen­ate Bill 919 (text here), and House Bill 1946 (text here). House Bill 1946 was signed by the House Speak­er March 6, and Sen­ate Bill 919 was signed by the Sen­ate Pres­i­dent March 7. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Ter­ry McAu­li­ffe is expect­ed to sign them into law.

Vir­ginia law­mak­ers want to give local and state author­i­ties the same sweep­ing search-and-seizure pow­ers used by the FBI and oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies under the Patri­ot Act.

Sen­ate Bill 919, by state Sen. Jen­nifer Wex­ton, D‑Leesburg, passed 39–1 last month (Jan­u­ary, 2015). A sim­i­lar mea­sure, House Bill 1946 by Del­e­gate Jen­nifer McClel­lan, D‑Richmond, awaits action.

The bills allow for “admin­is­tra­tive sub­poe­nas,” or what Vir­ginia civ­il lib­er­tar­i­an John White­head calls “sneak-and-peek searches.”

You’ll nev­er know you’re being inves­ti­gat­ed,” White­head told in an interview.

Bypass­ing the reg­u­lar search war­rant process, law-enforce­ment agen­cies could rifle through finan­cial trans­ac­tions, phone logs, com­put­er records and oth­er per­son­al data with­out obtain­ing a judge’s approval.

Fit­ting­ly, the Wex­ton-McClel­lan mea­sures are qui­et­ly rolling through the Gen­er­al Assem­bly with lit­tle or no pub­lic notice.

State Sen. Chap Petersen, D‑Fairfax, was the lone vote against Wexton’s bill.

It’s a bad idea — I can’t believe no one else vot­ed no,” he told Watchdog.

White­head, pres­i­dent of the Char­lottesville-based Ruther­ford Insti­tute, called the mea­sures “very Gestapo.”

Not­ing that the FBI uses 30,000 “nation­al secu­ri­ty let­ters” a year to con­duct search­es under Sec­tion 215 of the Patri­ot Act, White­head said, “The Fourth Amend­ment is dead. There is no pri­va­cy any more.”

The Wex­ton-McClel­lan bills would grant sim­i­lar pow­ers to local author­i­ties who sim­ply assert their search­es are “rel­a­tive to an ongo­ing investigation.”

Mark Fitzgib­bons, a North­ern Vir­ginia attor­ney, said the bills “evis­cer­ate prob­a­ble cause to a stan­dard of ‘rea­son to believe that the records or oth­er infor­ma­tion being sought are rel­e­vant to a legit­i­mate law-enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tion con­cern­ing violations.’”

The Writs of Assis­tance (gen­er­al war­rants) were passed by Par­lia­ment in vio­la­tion of the com­mon law stan­dards of being signed by a judge, after oath and affir­ma­tion of a wit­ness, and describ­ing with speci­fici­ty the place to be searched. Those stan­dards are found in the Fourth Amend­ment. Vir­ginia has come full cir­cle,” Fitzgib­bons said.

Nei­ther Wex­ton nor McClel­lan respond­ed to Watchdog’s requests for com­ment by dead­line. McClel­lan did have time, how­ev­er, to post a salute to State Police who filled the House gallery on Tuesday.

Thank you to the Vir­ginia State Troop­ers for their ser­vice to the Com­mon­wealth,” she retweet­ed, with pho­tos attached.