By Annie Kurtz, Staff Attorney
“Police department with a search warrant — come to the door with your hands up.” When officers from the Denver Police department yelled these words, they forever altered 77-year-old Ms. Ruby Johnson’s quiet life.
To this day, the words continue to haunt her.
A retired postal service worker and grandmother, Ms. Johnson was sitting in her living room, relaxing and enjoying her soap operas on the afternoon of January 4, 2022, when she heard the police bullhorn outside. In a bathrobe, bonnet, and slippers, she opened her front door to a scene she could barely comprehend: an armored military vehicle towered on her front lawn, Denver Police Department (DPD) vehicles flanked her street, and her small property was swarming with officers in full tactical gear, carrying rifles, with a K9 German shepherd in tow.
Terrified and confused, Ms. Johnson was confined in the back of a marked and guarded police vehicle, driven down the street and out of sight of her home while police ransacked her property.
The police left empty-handed. Their wrongful search left Ms. Johnson traumatized. After a lifetime of being a law-abiding, hardworking, church-going member of her community, Ms. Johnson doesn’t understand why this happened to her.
ACLU of Colorado lawyers filed suit on December 1 on Ms. Johnson’s behalf. The lawsuit accuses DPD Detective Gary Staab of unjustifiably violating the privacy and security of Ms. Johnson’s home by hastily seeking, obtaining, and executing a search warrant without proper investigation, adequate facts, and legal justification, in violation of the Colorado Constitution.
The lawsuit says that on January 4, Detective Staab was assigned to investigate a January 3 theft of a truck whose owner, Jeremy McDaniel, said contained two drones, six firearms, $4,000 cash, and an iPhone 11. Staab rested his brief investigation when McDaniel said he had used Apple’s “Find My” technology and tracked his stolen phone to an address in Montbello — Ms. Johnson’s home. Staab did no independent police work to corroborate the tip or further investigate the supposed connection between the crime and Ms. Johnson’s address. Instead, he applied for a search warrant.
The Colorado Constitution requires that search warrants be based on probable cause, as supported by a written affidavit. In this process, the affidavit provides the facts; the judge must then determine whether those facts justify authorizing police to invade the privacy of the home.
The complaint charges that Staab submitted a “bare bones” affidavit that blatantly misrepresented the facts and misled the reviewing judge. Staab claimed the Apple technology demonstrated that the stolen iPhone — and presumably the stolen guns and drones — were inside Ms. Johnson’s house. On the contrary, the app indicated that the phone’s location could not accurately be identified and that there was no basis for singling out Ms. Johnson’s home.
At every level — from detective to district attorney to judge — our justice system failed to prevent the deep harm that came from DPD’s reckless, unlawful, and misplaced search and show of force. The ACLU’s lawsuit relies on a 2020 Colorado statute that allows individuals to hold law enforcement officers accountable for violating rights secured under the Colorado Constitution.
Ms. Johnson hopes no one in her community is subjected to the same treatment again.