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ACLU suing Denver detective over 'terrifying hours-long' search of woman's home in Montbello

Lawsuit blames a detective of "hastily seeking, obtaining, and executing a search warrant without proper investigation"
Lawsuit filed by ACLU of Colorado and Ruby Johnson_against DPD Det. Gary Staab
Posted at 12:01 PM, Dec 01, 2022

DENVER — The ACLU of Colorado has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 77-year-old woman, claiming that her Montbello house was searched by Denver's SWAT team who didn't find any criminal activity, but damaged her sense of safety in her home, which was left in disarray.

The lawyers at ACLU of Colorado filed the suit against Denver Police Department Det. Gary Staab on Thursday morning.

According to the lawsuit, Ruby Johnson, 77, a retired U.S. Postal Service worker, suffered from a "terrifying hours-long" SWAT search in January 2022. The Denver Police Department's SWAT team, dressed in body armor and carrying automatic weapons, searched her home of 40 years, but did not find any illegal activity. They left her home damaged, in disarray, and caused Johnson physical and emotional harm, it reads, and Staab violated her state constitutional rights to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

The lawsuit accuses Det. Staab of "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."

Denver 7+ Colorado News Latest Headlines | December 1, 11am

The Colorado Constitution requires that search warrants be based on probable cause that is supported by a written affidavit. If a judge finds that the facts justify police invading the home, they can sign the warrant.

According to the complaint, on Jan. 4, Staab was assigned to investigate a truck theft from the previous day. Security camera footage from a Denver hotel showed the driver of a white truck break the garage gate and speed out of the garage. The owner, who was a guest, was informed, and he called police. He said the truck had two drones, six firearms, $4,000 in cash and an iPhone 11 inside, according to the complaint. He told Staab that he used the "Find My" app to track the iPhone, which showed it at Johnson's home on two occasions on Jan. 3, but not since, according to the affidavit Staab submitted. The truck owner told Staab he drove — in a rental car — by the home and did not see the truck, but believed it could be in a garage.

The lawsuit claims that Staab "did no independent police work to corroborate the tip or further investigate" and instead applied for a search warrant using a "hastily prepared, bare bones, misleading" affidavit. It was approved by an unknown DPD supervisor — who did not properly fill the paperwork out and instead only gave an "illegible signature" — but "blatantly misrepresented the facts and misled the reviewing judge," the lawsuit reads. It further described that Staab claimed the "Find My" app showed exactly where the missing iPhone was, but the app indicated that the location was approximate and Apple says it is not intended as a law enforcement tool.

This is something Staab should have known, the lawsuit claims.

"On the authority of the illegally issued warrant, DPD showed up at Ms. Johnson's home with an overwhelming, intimidating show of unnecessary force," the lawsuit reads. "Over a bullhorn, the amplified command of the SWAT team loudly ordered anyone inside to exit with their hands up. Ms. Johnson went to her front door, disoriented and terrified, wearing only her bathrobe and bonnet. She opened it to the sight of an armored military personnel carrier parked on her front lawn, DPD-marked vehicles along her street, and numerous men in full military technical gear carrying tactical rifles, (and) a K9 German Shepherd in tow."

Johnson, who lives alone, immediately cooperated.

When asked, she told officers that she was home alone and did not have any stolen property in her home.

She was told to wait in a police car for more than four hours, when the search ended. This included times when she was supposed to take medication. She was not told why her home was stormed or why she had been detained, according to the lawsuit.

While she waited, officers asked about how to open her garage and she provided instructions. But the officers ended up using a battering ram to destroy the back garage door and door frame, according to the lawsuit. They also damaged the inside of her home.

Officers and SWAT left after they had "found no evidence of anything even remotely connected to any criminal activity," the complaint reads.

"Following the search, Defendant Staab acknowledged to Ms. Johnson's children the harm his DPD officers caused to Ms. Johnson's well-being, home, and personal property," the lawsuit reads. "But, Defendant Staab told them DPD would pay nothing to repair the damage from its failed search."

In the months after the search, Johnson stayed with her daughter, who lives nearby, and then her son, who lives in Texas, because she did not feel safe in her home, and had developed health issues from extreme stress and anxiety. She also was unable to sleep well. In total, she stayed away from her home for three months out of fear and embarrassment about what her community thinks of her.

“We cherish Mom," said Johnson's son, Greg Brunson. "It’s painful to witness how this violation has affected her. She’s still hurting. She still doesn’t understand why this happened to her. And after everything, she still hasn’t gotten as much as an apology from the police.”

Her home is still damaged as well.

She is thinking of moving away from her home.

"It is no longer a refuge but a reminder of her vulnerability, even when her doors are locked," the lawsuit reads.

The suit calls for an award of compensatory damages, award of reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, and pre- and post-judgement interest.

Around 4 p.m. on Thursday, the Denver Police Department provided the following statement to Denver7:
The Department of Public Safety and Denver Police Department (DPD) sincerely apologize 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. 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.