RICHMOND, Va. — 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. 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 Watchdog.org 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.