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Court Issues Limited Decision on the Legality of NSA's PRISM Program

Several years ago, Edward Snowden made national news when he declared that the United States population was under surveillance by the NSA. While the legality of that revelation has generated no small amount of controversy itself, the programs he brought to light also have important implications for the field of criminal law and the Fourth Amendment rights of accused citizens.

An appeals court in New York handed down a decision on one of the more important pieces of that program inACLU v. Clapper. The decision relates to the controversial PRISM program; PRISM is a program through which the NSA collected data related to millions of people, specifically internet communications. The court held that those collections were an unauthorized intrusion into people's privacy. However, it did so without ruling on the underlying constitutional issues.

What the Court Said

In its decision, the court focused on section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. That section allowed the NSA to collect a wide variety of records "relevant to an authorized investigation" in order to protect the U.S. against terrorism. The NSA argued that this section allowed them to collect data on the phone calls of millions of those living in the United States based on the fact that they could then use computer programs to sift through that data to find information relevant to ongoing investigations.

The court disagreed with that assessment. The judge held that merely stockpiling irrelevant information in the hopes that some of it may someday become relevant would expand the definition of irrelevant to unprecedented levels.

What the Court Did Not Say

What is particularly interesting about this opinion is not what the judge said, but what he left out. The court explicitly acknowledged that it was avoiding the Constitutional law issue in the case's background - whether Congress has the authority to authorize such massive data collection without violating citizens' rights to safety from unreasonable searches and seizures. Essentially, the court refused to decide that question by instead deciding that, regardless of whether Congress could authorize such a program, it did not in this instance.

Some court-watchers think that this limited decision has to do with the fact that Congress is currently debating what to do with the PATRIOT Act as a whole, which expires at the end of May. The courts may want to provide Congress with the opportunity to revise the Act before diving into the Constitutional issues that the authorization of such an expansive data collection would raise.

Criminal law and the rights of the accused are in constant flux, sometimes in high profile cases like this and other times with much less notice. If you have been accused of a crime and want to learn more about your rights, contact defense attorney George Hildebrandt today for a free consultation.  

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