LOS ANGELES — A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that some portions of
the U.S. Patriot Act dealing with foreign terrorist organizations are
unconstitutional because the language is too vague to be understood by a person
of average intelligence.
The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco affirms
a 2005 decision by U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins, who ruled on a petition
seeking to clear the way for U.S. groups and individuals to assist political
organizations in Turkey and Sri Lanka.
Collins said language in the Patriot Act was vague on matters involving
training, expert advice or assistance, personnel and service to foreign
terrorist organizations. Her ruling prevented the federal government from
enforcing those provisions as they apply to the terrorist groups named in the
The language of the law is so unclear, plaintiffs argued, that it could be
used to prosecute people who trained members of foreign groups in "how to use
humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve ongoing disputes" or in
how to ask the United Nations for disaster relief. Violators could be subject to
prison terms of up to 15 years.
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said his agency was reviewing
the ruling to determine a response.
In its 27-page decision in Humanitarian
Law Project v. Mukasey, the unanimous three-judge panel said that to
survive a vagueness challenge, a statute "must be sufficiently clear to put a
person of ordinary intelligence on notice that his or her contemplated conduct
The language covered by the ruling remained unconstitutionally vague despite
congressional amendments to the Patriot Act meant to remedy the problems, the
appeals court ruled.