ACLU of Colorado sued Denver police officers for unconstitutional search warrants and a traumatic SWAT raid of Montbello grandmother’s home

DENVER — In a precedent-setting decision under a new statute allowing enforcement of the Colorado Constitution, a Colorado jury awarded $3.76 million in damages to Ruby Johnson, a 78-year-old Montbello grandmother, on Friday after concluding that Denver Police Department (DPD) Detective Gary Staab and DPD Sergeant Gregory Buschy violated the Colorado Constitution by hastily seeking, obtaining, and executing a search warrant of her home without probable cause or proper investigation. The jury’s award included both $1.26 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages after concluding that the officers acted with willful and wanton disregard of Ms. Johnson’s constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure.

On January 4, 2022, a DPD SWAT team ransacked Ms. Johnson’s home of 43 years based on an alleged location ping from an iPhone’s “Find My” app that the officers did not understand and for which they had no training. Ms. Johnson lived alone in her Montbello home and was in her robe, bonnet, and slippers when she was subjected to the terrifying police raid. Donning body armor and automatic weapons, police officers searched Ms. Johnson’s home for stolen items from an incident that she had absolutely nothing to do with.

“This is a small step toward justice for Ms. Johnson, but it is a critical case under our state’s Constitution, for the first time affirming that police can be held accountable for invading someone’s home without probable cause,” said Tim Macdonald, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “The ACLU worked hard in the summer of 2020, with lots of other stakeholders, to create a right to sue for violations of the state Constitution. This decision is the next step in ensuring that the rights in the Colorado Constitution are secured for all people in our State.”

The Colorado Constitution requires that search warrants be based on probable cause supported by a written affidavit before police can invade the privacy of someone’s home. In this case, however, the jury concluded that the deficient warrant authorizing the search was unsupported by probable cause.

Both Ms. Johnson and her home carry wounds from that day that have not healed. Johnson has now moved, and she has developed health issues due to the traumatic and unlawful search.

“Not only was her privacy violated, and invaluable possessions destroyed, but her sense of safety in her own home was ripped away, forcing her to move from the place where she had set her roots and built community in for 40 years,” said Deborah Richardson, ACLU of Colorado Executive Director. "Though the outcome of this trial will not fully undo the harm of that fateful day, it puts us one step closer to justice for her and others who have found their lives turned upside down because of police misconduct.”

This case, as part of the ACLU of Colorado’s Campaign for Smart Justice, is just one example of a larger problem of police obtaining warrants and invading people's homes based on false information, including — like in this case — misrepresentations of the significance and accuracy of technology.

In addition to Tim Macdonald, plaintiffs’ attorneys in the trial court were Lindsey Floyd, Annie Kurtz, Sara Neel, together with cooperating counsel Michelle Gomez and Colby Everett.