Denver woman, 77, files lawsuit after SWAT team mistakenly targets her house

A SWAT team terrified a 77-year-old Denver grandmother at her home after a series of alleged blunders, including misleading “Find My” app information, placed stolen property at her addresss, according to a lawsuit the ACLU has filed on her behalf.

Ruby Johnson, who has lived in the house for 40 years, was wearing her bathrobe and bonnet on 4 January when she heard a bullhorn ordering anyone within the home to come outside, states the complaint, filed last week in Denver District Court against Denver Police Detective Gary Staab. Ms Johnson opened the door to the site of an armoured vehicle, police cars, officers in full military tactical gear and a German Shephard from the K-9 unit.

According to the complaint, Mr Staab was looking for the contents of a truck stolen a day earlier with contents that included drones, firearms, $4,000 cash and an old iPhone. The truck’s owner allegedly used the “Find My” app, which placed its location near Ms Johnson’s house in the Montbello neighbourhood of Denver.

“The warrant authorizing the illegal search of Ms. Johnson’s home issued on Defendant Staab’s hastily prepared, bare-bones, misleading affidavit,” the complaint reads. “The sole basis he identified for connecting the crime to Ms. Johnson’s address was the truck theft victim’s use of Apple’s ‘Find My’ app to try to track an old iPhone that was in the stolen truck. But contrary to Defendant Staab’s representations to the reviewing judge, use of the app in fact made clear that the iPhone’s location could not be accurately identified, and there was zero basis to single out Ms. Johnson’s home.”

Ms Johnson is suing Denver Police Detective Gary Staab (Joanna Kulesza via ACLU of Colorado)
Ms Johnson is suing Denver Police Detective Gary Staab (Joanna Kulesza via ACLU of Colorado)

The cops found nothing, but Ms Johnson was left traumatized. She and her family eventually contacted the ACLU of Colorado, legal director Mark Silverstein tellsThe Independent.

“The detective did not have enough facts to justify a search warrant,” Mr Silverstein says. “He did not do enough investigation; he got no corroborating information; he should not have applied for a warrant. His supervisor should have stopped it. The district attorney should not have greenlighted it. The judge should not have issued it. And the SWAT team should have stayed home.”

He adds: “When you realise that this application moved through several potential checks - checks that are supposed to be designed to prevent an illegal search from occurring - it fell through and fell through rapidly. The detective got this first information around 9 o’clock in the morning. By noon ... the [warrant] application had been through the supervisor, the DA and the judge, and the SWAT team was out at our client’s house an hour after the warrant [was] issued. I suspect they must have been getting ready even before they got the word the warrant had been approved.

Mr Silverstein then said: “Which makes you wonder about, is this swift approval without adequate consideration the standard operating procedure?”

The shocking incident not only damaged Ms Johnson’s house but also left her afraid to answer the door or stay in her home. She left the state for months to stay with her son, the complaint says. She has suffered from anxiety and trouble sleeping ever since, as well as “intense shame and embarrassment as a result of the spectacle of DPD’s militarized illegal search,” according to the complaint.

“After a lifetime of being a law-abiding, hardworking, church-going member of her community, she nurses anxiety about what her neighbors thought of her that day and think of her now,” the complaint reads.

The suit was filed against Mr Staab personally under a 2020 Colorado statute that allows individuals to hold law enforcement officers accountable for violating rights secured under the Colorado Constitution.

Ms Johnson is seeking damages and a jury trial.

The Denver Police Department issued a statement apologising to Ms Johnson “for any negative impacts this situation may have had on her.

“SWAT was involved in the execution of the warrant due to allegations that six guns had been stolen and may have been located in Ms. Johnson’s home,” the statement continued. “Once Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas was made aware of concerns expressed by Ms. Johnson’s family regarding the warrant, the Department reached out to the family. We hope to continue to work with Ms. Johnson’s family through her attorneys to resolve this matter without further litigation.

“Chief Thomas has also ordered that an internal investigation be opened and DPD is working with the Denver District Attorney’s office to develop additional training for officers and assistant district attorneys related to seeking warrants based upon find my phone applications.”