PHILADELPHIA - In the two years since law enforcement agencies gained fresh powers to help them track down and punish terrorists, police and prosecutors have increasingly turned the force of the new laws not on al-Qaida cells but on people charged with common crimes.
The Justice Department said it has used authority given to it by the USA Patriot Act to crack down on currency smugglers and seize money hidden overseas by alleged bookies, con artists and drug dealers.
"These are appropriate uses of the statute," said Stefan Cassella, deputy chief for legal policy for the Justice Department's asset forfeiture and money laundering section. "If we can use the statute to get money back for victims, we are going to do it."Federal prosecutors have brought more than 250 criminal charges under the law, with more than 130 convictions or guilty pleas.
A North Carolina county prosecutor charged a man accused of running a methamphetamine lab with breaking a new state law barring the manufacture of chemical weapons. If convicted, Martin Dwayne Miller could get 12 years to life in prison in a crime that usually brings about six months.
The law defines chemical weapons of mass destruction as "any substance that is designed or has the capability to cause death or serious injury" and contains toxic chemicals.
Civil liberties and legal defense groups are bothered by the string of cases and say the government soon will be routinely using harsh antiterrorism laws against run-of-the-mill lawbreakers.
"We've already heard stories of local police chiefs creating files on people who have protested the (Iraq) war," said Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "The government is constantly trying to expand its jurisdictions, and it needs to be watched very, very closely."
More than 150 local governments have passed resolutions opposing the law as an overly broad threat to constitutional rights.