January 27, 2023

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Denver PD Sued After SWAT Team Raid Of 77-Year-Old Woman’s House Based On Nothing More Than Phone Pings

from the lots-of-enthusiasm,-zero-due-diligence dept

Once again, law enforcement’s enthusiasm for violent warrant service has combined with its disinterest in responsible policing to result in a civil rights lawsuit. Here’s how that all played out, as reported by The Denver Post. (h/t Techdirt reader BentFranklin)

Ruby Johnson, 77, is afraid to be alone in the house where she’s lived for 40 years because of Denver police.

Denver police officers dressed in military-style SWAT gear on Jan. 4 descended on Johnson’s Montbello home to serve a search warrant. Johnson, in her bathrobe, opened her door when an officer on a bullhorn told anyone inside to come out. Officers carrying rifles stood on her lawn next to an armored tactical vehicle. One officer held the leash of a German shepherd K9.

Once inside her home, Johnson said, they smashed a door to her garage with a battering ram, broke apart a ceiling panel, broke the head off of a beloved collectible doll and left the house in disarray.

They were looking for a stolen iPhone that had pinged near her home. The iPhone was believed to be inside a stolen truck along with several guns. But police found nothing inside Johnson’s home.

The Denver Police Department — like plenty of other police departments around the nation — has its problems. This is only one of them.

The raid was predicated on “Find My iPhone” pings reported to the police by the cell phone’s owner. The location data provided by these pings is coarse, at best. As is pointed out in Johnson’s lawsuit, the ping radius covered several properties in the neighborhood. Yet the police believed Johnson was housing stolen goods and pulled the trigger on a search warrant.

That’s not the only problematic aspect of this so-called investigation. Prior reporting on the raid by KUSA exposed other issues with the events leading up to this raid — issues that are definitely going to cause problems for the Denver PD as it defends itself against this lawsuit.

The theft victim who delivered the “Find My iPhone” data to the PD felt officers weren’t taking the investigation seriously, despite him reporting stolen guns in addition to the vehicle and iPhone.

[Jeremy] McDaniel said he didn’t think police treated his case with urgency, even after he told them about the stolen guns. He said he was on hold with DPD for 45 minutes and had difficulty getting them to check possible leads on the day his truck and guns were stolen.

[…] 

He said he alerted police multiple times about other opportunities found through Find My iPhone to look for the stolen truck, but he felt police “blew us off,” even after he told them the guns that were inside the truck. The iPhone stopped for an hour at a McDonald’s and a 7-Eleven, but police did not go look for the truck. 

“They said ‘Sorry, we just don’t have the manpower to check it out,’ even though there’s guns in it and all kinds of stuff,” McDaniel said. He said the police didn’t seem to care after he notified them of the theft. 

So, cops spent a day doing nothing before suddenly deciding a warrant needed to be sought and executed. No further surveillance of the property occurred before the warrant was executed. Despite having a day to determine whether this home was the best potential target for a search (given that the location data provided by McDaniel covered several nearby homes), the Denver PD performed a SWAT raid that involved cutting locks, bashing in a door, and the tossing of several rooms, despite having full compliance of the 77-year-old homeowner, as well as instructions on how to unlock and open the doors officers later destroyed.

The lawsuit [PDF], filed with the assistance of the ACLU of Colorado, provides more details on the lack of due diligence performed by the PD prior to the search, as well as the swearing officer’s misrepresentation of the “Find My iPhone” data provided by the theft victim. The affidavit presented the data as identifying Johnson’s home as the source of the pings, despite the included screenshot showing an area encompassing six different homes and two city blocks. The affidavit also, for some reason, failed to mention the $4,000 McDaniel said was in the stolen truck, instead referring solely to the guns, phone, and other items listed by the vehicle owner.

The PD can’t have it both ways. It can’t blow off a theft victim for nearly a day and then spend less than four hours securing a warrant and engaging in a SWAT raid. At some point, the PD needs to perform some actual investigation, something that might have made it clear Johnson’s home was not the only potential target and possibly might have eliminated her residence as a target altogether.

Hopefully, the city and its officers won’t be able to escape this lawsuit. A hasty and careless “investigation” resulted in the partial destruction of a person’s home and a complete destruction of their trust in their public servants. When citizens are in the wrong, they’re expected to make things right. But when cops get things wrong, it’s the people they serve who are expected to live with the results of their errors.

Filed Under: denver, denver police department, find my phone, location info, ruby johnson, swat team