Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How A Patriot Acts

Brandon Mayfield takes on the USA PATRIOT Act, and, so far, he’s winning.

These days, Mayfield lives much as he has for the past decade or so, practicing family law from a small solo office next to a strip mall on the southern edge of Portland. He is a slight man, 41 years old, who likes to take his lunch at a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. In many ways, what’s most interesting about Mayfield is how utterly unexceptional he is. He was born in Kansas and got his law degree from Washburn University in Topeka. An Army veteran, he is married, with three children, and lives with his family in a nearby suburb with the homey name of Aloha.

Almost the only vaguely exotic thing about Brandon Mayfield is his religion: He is a Muslim convert and belongs to a local mosque. But like Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French writer whom he likes to quote and who helped define the American spirit, Mayfield worries that in a democratic system, the tendency of government will be to augment its power at the expense of minorities. “I’m suspicious of government anyway,” he said in an interview last week. And it’s not hard to conclude that Mayfield’s one deviation from the norm, the thing that makes him a minority, explains why, for a few weeks in 2004, he was one of the most famous people in the world.

On May 6, 2004, FBI agents descended on his law office, his home, and the family farm in Kansas to search for evidence that Mayfield was a terror mastermind. Media leaks let it be known that he was responsible for the bombing of the Madrid train station in March 2004, which killed 191 people. The evidence was said to be a fingerprint found on a plastic bag of detonators at the scene. Federal agents threw Mayfield into the Portland city lockup not as a defendant but as a “material witness.”

But not only had Mayfield been far from Madrid at the time of the bombing, he hadn’t even left the United States since 1994. The FBI, however, insisted that his Army fingerprint matched a digital photo of the print from the Madrid bag. The Spanish police, who had the original fingerprint, were never convinced that Mayfield’s was a match. But that didn’t stop the FBI from swearing to a judge that it was.

The case collapsed when, after Mayfield had been held for two weeks, the Spanish police identified an Algerian, Ouhnane Daoud, as the real holder of the fingerprint. The feds released Mayfield.

Then the payback began. Gerry Spence, the Jeremiah Johnson of America law, ambled down from the Wyoming mountains to represent Mayfield in a civil-rights lawsuit against the government. The FBI apologized and gave him a $2 million settlement. Mayfield agreed to waive all his personal claims against the government and specific agents; but he insisted on retaining one claim: that two provisions of the Patriot Act were unconstitutional on their face.

Last week the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with him and ruled that the two provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution; namely the need for probable cause before executing a search warrant.

Apparently, in the mind of the Justice Department, the fact that Mr. Mayfield is a Muslim is enough probable cause.

Mayfield is now working on his own account of the events of 2004, and he spends other free time reading the history of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Constitution guarantees every American the right to choose a religious belief, even if it’s one the government does not approve of. And it’s impossible not to believe that Mayfield’s spiritual choice is what landed him in prison, branded a mass murderer, on the basis of phony assertions and faked “evidence.”

Mayfield’s prescription for what ails the country is as straightforward as most other things about him. It’s the Constitution.

“We have a perfect balance between liberty and security, between criminal investigation and privacy. It’s called probable cause,” he said. “We ironed out these issues a long time ago. That’s why we’re such a wonderful country.”