Privacy SOS

Terror watch-lists: guilty even after proven innocent

Police unions have long lobbied successfully to ensure that arrests that do not lead to convictions remain on criminal records, even though the judicial process cleared the accused of charges. That's because police believe that anyone they arrest who isn't convicted somehow gamed the system, or that the system messed up. In other words, the police are never wrong.

The FBI seems to believe this, as well. Charlie Savage of the New York Times is reporting that recently released documents, from an EPIC FOIA lawsuit, show that the Bureau has the authority to keep people on its terrorist watch-lists even if they are cleared of any criminal charges or otherwise found to be innocent of ties to terrorism. The FBI says that sometimes the courts get it wrong. 

The terror watch-lists and other post-9/11 legal changes did away with the presumption of innocence before trial. But now we have proof that the agencies tasked with maintaining the lists aren't even interested in innocence verdicts. 

With the 10th anniversary of the Patriot Act coming up in late October, it's time for Americans to start asking: what happened to our core legal values? These documents shine a light on one of the most unsavory ideological shifts our legal process has ever endured. In this legal landscape, where one can be blacklisted by the government even after having been cleared of criminal charges, what does innocence mean after all?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.