An Egyptian-American college student who says he has never done anything that should attract the interest of federal law enforcement officials filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the FBI for secretly putting a GPS tracking device on his car.
Yasir Afifi, 20, says a mechanic doing an oil change on his car in October discovered the device stuck with magnets between his right rear wheel and exhaust. They were not sure what it was, but Afifi had the mechanic remove it and a friend posted photos of it online to see whether anyone could identify it.
Two days later, Afifi says, agents wearing bullet-proof vests pulled him over as he drove away from his apartment in San Jose, California, and demanded their property back.
Afifi's lawsuit, filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, claims the FBI violated his civil rights by putting the device on his car without a warrant. His lawyers say Afifi, who was born in the United States, was targeted because of his extensive ties to the Middle East — he travels there frequently, helps support two brothers who live in Egypt, and his father was a well-known Islamic-American community leader who died last year in Egypt.
FBI Spokesman Michael Kortan declined to discuss the lawsuit or the agency's investigation into Afifi, but said, "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."
Afifi, who is a business marketing major and works as a computer salesman, said at a news conference to announce the suit that the agents never gave him a clear answer as to why he was being monitored.
"I'm sure I have done nothing wrong to provoke anyone's interest," Afifi said, although he noted that his family is from Egypt, he's a young man and he makes a lot of calls overseas. "So I'm sure I fit their profile."
Judges have disagreed over whether search warrants should be required for GPS tracking. Afifi's lawyers say they are filing this lawsuit in hopes of a decision saying that any use of tracking devices without a warrant in the United States is unconstitutional.
The federal appeals court in the Washington circuit where Afifi's case was filed ruled in August that the collection of GPS data amounts to a government "search" that required a warrant. The Obama administration asked the court to change its ruling, calling the decision "vague and unworkable" and arguing that investigators will lose access to a tool they now use "with great frequency."
The lawsuit says the agents who showed up to collect the device were "hostile," threatening to charge Afifi if he didn't immediately cooperate and refusing his request to have a lawyer present. The suit also says agents showed they knew private details about his life, such as which restaurants he dined at, the new job he had just obtained and his plans to travel abroad.
"At first I was really confused," Afifi said at the news conference, adding that he finally decided to turn over the GPS. "I did give it back to them after a lot of pressure."