The USA Patriot Act, in the name of fighting terrorism, allows the government to find out which books and Internet sites a person has seen. It lets investigators secretly search homes and monitor phone calls and e-mail.
Now, officials in the wealthy New York City suburb of Summit are using the law to justify forcing homeless people to leave a train station _ an action that sparked a $5 million federal lawsuit by a homeless man.
Richard Kreimer, who filed the lawsuit in March after being kicked out of the train station, said the Patriot Act defense makes no sense.
"Unless they've been smoking those funny cigarettes, I can't see how my civil lawsuit has anything to do with the Patriot Act," said Kreimer, 55, who is acting as his own attorney.
But Summit officials argue they are protected by a provision regarding "attacks and other violence against mass transportation systems." Town attorney Harry Yospin, who did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday and Wednesday, has used the law as one of more than a dozen defenses in the case.
Edward Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the Patriot Act defense is weak: "Nothing in the Patriot Act lets them kick homeless people out of train stations."
The U.S. Justice Department also criticized Summit's use of the law.
"That represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Patriot Act is," spokesman Kevin Madden said Wednesday. "The Patriot Act is a law enforcement tool to identify and track terrorists and stop them from further attacks on America. To apply it to this case is, shall we say, an overreaching application of the law."
Kreimer garnered national attention in 1991 after suing Morristown, the Morris Township public library and the police department over his treatment there. The library threw him out at least five times, claiming his body odor and the way he looked at library patrons offended them.
A federal judge ruled the library's rules on hygiene were unconstitutional _ a decision that was overturned, but not before Kreimer had been paid. Kreimer has said he spent the settlement on lawyers, living expenses and medical bills.
In the latest case, Kreimer is seeking at least $5 million in damages from the city of Summit, NJ Transit, nine police officers and several others, claiming he and other homeless people have been unlawfully thrown out of train stations since August.
He also wants a judge to decide whether transit stations are public or private property, and whether people who do not have train tickets have the right to be in them.
The state Attorney General's office, on behalf of NJ Transit, has called the lawsuit frivolous and a sham but did not cite the Patriot Act. City Administrator Christopher Cotter said the municipality does not comment on active litigation.
Since the lawsuit was filed, NJ Transit has announced plans to create "ticket-only" zones limiting areas of train and bus stations to passengers holding tickets.