Physics professor, ACLU sue FBI

Xiaoxing Xi was wrongfully accused of spying and providing technology to China in 2015.

A physics professor who was indicted and later cleared of charges by the FBI has filed an amended complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union against the United States for wrongfully targeting him because he is Chinese.

Xiaoxing Xi, a naturalized citizen and the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Physics, was arrested in May 2015 after the FBI alleged Xi intended to share superconductor technology called a “pocket heater” — which “dramatically” improves the efficiency of certain technologies — with Chinese “associates,” according to court documents.

Xi amended his original May 2017 suit to include the ACLU as part of his representation.

In the most recent suit filed last week, Xi and his attorneys claim lead FBI investigator Andrew Haugen fabricated evidence and maliciously prosecuted him in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. It also claims he was racially and ethnically profiled.

The FBI went through Xi’s correspondences with other Chinese academics through orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was created to allow government agencies to spy on foreign agents.

After the charges were filed in 2015, FBI agents came to Xi’s home in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, with their weapons drawn, held Xi’s wife and two young daughters at gunpoint. Xi was forcefully arrested in front of his family.

Once Xi was in law enforcement custody, he was strip-searched, interrogated and told he was facing charges that included 80 years of imprisonment and $1 million in fines, according to Xi’s latest complaint.

“In essence, he was accused of being a technological spy for China,” stated Xi’s civil suit against the U.S.

After his detainment, Xi was suspended as the interim chair of the department of physics, placed on administrative leave, not allowed to access his lab or supervise his graduate students, the ACLU wrote in its release. At the time of his arrest, Xi was responsible for nine research projects that were funded by the federal government, he claims in the suit.

Xi, his wife and daughter are suing for the federal court to award their family damages, declare their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights were violated and order the FBI to return or delete any of Xi’s virtual communications used in the investigation. The Fourth Amendment protects  citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, and the Fifth Amendment protects citizens from the government taking private property without just compensation — which Xi believes were both violated.

Susan Lin, Xi’s attorney from the Philadelphia-based law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, said she and her client are not in a position to discuss litigation at the present time.

The ACLU noted in a statement last week that this is the third time a Chinese-American scientist was charged for espionage plots in 10 months. They were all later dismissed.

National Weather Service employee Sherry Chen was arrested in Ohio in October 2014. She was charged for illegally downloading data about “critical national infrastructure” and giving it to China’s water ministry, the New York Times reported. These charges were dropped five months later, Quartz reported.

Guoqing Cao and Shuyu Li, both nationalized Chinese-American citizens, were indicted in October 2013 because of an FBI suspicion that the two stole and shared trade secrets from their pharmaceutical producer employer Eli Lilly and Company with its Chinese competitor, the Indy Star reported. These charges were dropped a year later.

“The dangers of giving the government such sweeping surveillance powers are real and unmistakable,” wrote Patrick Toomey, an ACLU attorney, in a release. “This case is a glaring example of an innocent American’s privacy rights being grossly violated, with disastrous consequences for Professor Xi and his family.”

“The government needs to stop spying on Americans without a warrant and start following the Constitution,” Toomey wrote.

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