Yasir Afifi, a U.S. citizen and California community college student, says a mechanic doing an oil change on his car last fall discovered a mysterious device stuck between his right rear wheel and exhaust.
Not knowing what it was, Afifi had the device removed and photos of it put online at Reddit, hoping that someone could identify it. A reader let them know it was a tracking device made by an electronics company called Cobham and that the device is sold only to law enforcement.
Two days later, some half-dozen people also stepped forward outside Afifi’s Santa Clara apartment as he was driving away. They were agents wearing bullet-proof vests who pulled him over and demanded that he give back their expensive property.
Afifi, through CAIR, is suing the FBI for putting the device on his car in the first place, claiming that the agents were “hostile,” refusing his request to have a lawyer present while telling him that he better cooperate immediately: “We’re going to make this much more difficult for you if you don’t cooperate.” He did cooperate willingly.
The suit also says the agents knew private details about his life, such as which restaurants he dined at, his new job as a computer salesman, and about his plans to travel abroad.
Afifi admits he makes a lot of calls overseas. His father who died in Egypt last year was a well-known Islamic-American community leader, and his two brothers still live in Egypt. While Afifi affirms that agents never gave him a clear answer as to why he was being monitored, he recognizes that he obviously fits some sort of suspicious profile. He says that he has not broken any laws or done anything wrong that should provoke anyone’s interest. His lawyers believe that Afifi’s privacy was invaded because he frequently travels to the Middle East.
FBI Spokesman Michael Kortan answered,
“The FBI conducts investigations under well-established Department of Justice and FBI guidelines that determine what investigative steps or techniques are appropriate. Those guidelines also ensure the protection of civil and constitutional rights.”
Is a secret GPS tracking device lawful under the Constitution?
- One court says that it is legal: A recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it is legal for law enforcement to secretly place a tracing device on a suspect’s car without getting a warrant. (The American Civil Liberties Union quickly contacted Yasir Afifi when the FBI device was found in his vehicle. The ACLU has been searching for a case such as this with which to challenge the 9th circuit court ruling.)
- Another court has ruled it to be unconstitutional: In contrast, the Washington, D.C., federal appeals court in the circuit where Afifi’s case is filed said last year that the collection of data through a GPS device is basically a government “search” that did require a warrant. (The Obama administration asked the court to reverse the ruling because it is “vague and unworkable” and also that investigators will no longer be able to use a tool they’ve been using “with great frequency.”)
Since various judges have disagreed over whether search warrants should be required for GPS tracking, Afifi’s lawyers hope for a final decision eventually that any use of tracking devices without a warrant is unconstitutional.
Yakima FBI, What we investigate Counties: Kittitas, Klickitat, and Yakima