By Deborah Richardson, Executive Director

On March 1, 2024, a jury awarded $3.76 million in damages to Ruby Johnson, a 78-year-old Montbello grandmother, in a precedent-setting case brought by the ACLU of Colorado. Ms. Johnson had been subjected to a Denver Police Department (DPD) SWAT team raid of her home of more than 40 years without probable cause or proper investigation. Alone in her robe, bonnet, and slippers, the SWAT team ordered her out of her home at gunpoint and locked her in a DPD police cruiser while officers ransacked her place. 

The award included both $1.26 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages after the jury concluded that the DPD officers acted with willful and wanton disregard of Ms. Johnson’s constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure. With prejudgment interest, a Denver district judge increased the total award to more than $4 million. This decision will have far-reaching impacts on our rights under the Colorado Constitution and will help protect individuals from unlawful searches and seizures in the future.   

While the victory in this case helps bring justice to Ms. Johnson and her family, she will forever be impacted by the traumatic events of that fateful day. Her sense of safety was ripped from her, she no longer lives in the home she built a life in, nor in the community where she raised her children. The decision by the jury in this case will help ensure that the lives of other Coloradans are not turned upside down because of police misconduct.  

By Tim MacDonald, Legal Director

Photo of Ruby Johnson and ACLU of Colorado legal director Tim MacDonald shaking hands in a Denver courtroom

The ACLU of Colorado filed the lawsuit in late 2022 under a new state law (C.R.S. § 13-21-131) allowing civil enforcement for the violation of people’s rights under the Colorado Constitution. This landmark statute was enacted in 2020 after extensive advocacy work from the ACLU and partner organizations. Ms. Johnson’s case was one of the first cases to go to trial under the new statute and resulted in a resounding victory for civil rights. As a result, the decision will help establish the law’s interpretation in subsequent cases. 

The case arose out of the SWAT raid of Ms. Johnson’s home in early January 2022, based on a deficient search warrant related to a crime that she had nothing to do with. DPD officers Gary Staab and Gregory Buschy signed the search warrant and conducted the investigation related to an alleged truck theft that had occurred in downtown Denver. The truck’s owner, Jeremy McDaniel, told DPD officers that the truck contained six guns, 1000 rounds of ammunition, $4,000 cash, and an old iPhone 11 when it was stolen from a Denver hotel. The sole basis the officers had to connect the crime to Ms. Johnson’s home was McDaniel’s use of Apple’s “Find My” app, which had allegedly pinged in the Montbello neighborhood. Contrary to the officers’ representations to the judge who reviewed and approved the search warrant application, the "Find My" app made clear that the iPhone’s location could not be accurately identified. Because of the large location radius, there was no basis to search Ms. Johnson’s home. The evidence provided at trial established that the officers did not understand the “Find My" app, had no training on it, and declined to use readily available police resources that would have told them they had no basis for the raid of Ms. Johnson’s home.  

This case, brought as a part of our Campaign for Smart Justice, is just one example of a larger problem of police obtaining warrants and invading people's homes based on inaccurate or misleading information, including in instances when police misrepresent the significance and accuracy of technology. Our victory will help ensure that all of us can maintain the sanctity of our homes from police intrusion.