DENVER – In a class action lawsuit filed in state district court Monday evening, the ACLU of Colorado argued that Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and Nineteenth Judicial District Attorney Ken Buck are violating the privacy rights of thousands of law-abiding taxpayers by keeping copies of confidential information obtained in an illegal search of Amalia’s Translation and Tax Service in Greeley, Colorado, last fall.

“The search violated the privacy rights of thousands of innocent taxpayers who are not suspected of any wrongdoing,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “If the Sheriff and the District Attorney can comb through all the many thousands of records of a tax preparer on the theory that some of the clients are doing something wrong, then none of our private information is safe.”

In the October search, deputies took 49 file boxes filled with the tax returns and related information dating back to 2000 regarding approximately 4900 of Ms. Cerrillo’s tax preparation clients. The officers also took dozens of CDs and floppy disks and copied all the electronic documents on the hard drives of Ms. Cerrillo’s computers. In a November news conference, District Attorney Ken Buck said the search was part of an investigation he called “Operation Number Games.”

Ms. Cerrillo was not a suspect, and the application for the search warrant quoted a tax investigator who said that she “is conducting business according to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines and has not violated any laws.”

In a legal brief, the ACLU lawyers argue that the deputies illegally searched the confidential files of thousands of taxpayers when they had individualized suspicion implicating only one of them. “This was the equivalent of a house-by-house search of innocent homeowners in order to find a suspect believed to be somewhere in the neighborhood,” Silverstein said. “The constitutional right of privacy protects us from such blanket general searches.”

After reviewing the confidential files of all of Ms. Cerrillo’s tax preparation clients, Buck said he regarded hundreds as suspects. Relying on the confidential tax return information, Buck began filing criminal charges of “criminal impersonation” or “identity theft,” asserting that these laws are violated when an individual earns wages using a fake social security number. A few dozen persons have been arrested, and warrants are outstanding for approximately 100 additional suspects. So far, however, Buck has taken no official action against additional clients of Ms. Cerrillo that he suspects.

The ACLU asked the Court to order that all copies of the confidential tax return information taken in the search be returned or destroyed. As an interim measure, the ACLU asked the Court to order that all copies of the confidential information be turned over to the Court and placed under seal while the class action suit is pending. ACLU lawyers will ask for an expedited hearing.

Silverstein added that the ACLU’s lawsuit does not extend to persons who have already been charged with crimes as a result of evidence taken from Ms. Cerrillo’s business. Those persons can challenge the illegal search in the context of their own criminal cases.

The suit names Buck and Cooke as defendants. Plaintiffs are Amalia Cerrillo, owner of the tax preparation service, and four of her clients, three of whom filed a motion to participate without revealing their names.

In addition to Silverstein, attorneys for the Plaintiffs include Taylor Pendergrass, ACLU Staff Attorney, and four ACLU cooperating attorneys: Reid Neureiter and Elizabeth Harris of the Jacobs Chase law firm, and Michael Glade, and Shannon Lyons.

Read copies of the lawsuit and the ACLU’s legal arguments.

Download a hi-res version of the boxes image.