The officials were investigating the theft of a stolen white truck carrying firearms, drones, $4,000 in cash and an iPhone — but they had gotten the wrong address and, in doing so, conducted an “illegal search” of Johnson’s property, a lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges.
Now, Johnson is suing Gary Staab, the lead detective in a raid that Johnson’s attorneys say was based on a faulty reading of a geolocation pin on Apple’s Find My app and a “hastily prepared, bare-bones, misleading affidavit” used to obtain a warrant.
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“It’s actually a good thing that nobody got hurt in this instance — because cases like these have led to deaths, like that of Breonna Taylor,” Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, told The Washington Post. “It’s one thing to go search a vacant house or field or even a business. But when people are living there, the privacy of the home should be sufficiently important that we should require more compelling evidence to justify that kind of search.”
In a statement to The Post, the Denver Police Department and public safety officials apologized to Johnson, adding that a SWAT team had been called in “due to allegations that six guns had been stolen and may have been located in Ms. Johnson’s home.” Police Chief Ron Thomas has ordered an internal investigation into the incident and “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,” the statement adds.
The chain of events that ultimately led a SWAT team to Johnson’s home started with a report of a burglary one day earlier. On Jan. 3, a man named Jeremy McDaniel reported that his truck had been stolen from a Hyatt parking garage. Inside the vehicle was an iPhone 11, which McDaniel told police he had traced to a specific address — the address Johnson called home, the lawsuit states.
In reality, the complaint alleges, the Find My app — a feature that allows Apple users to locate their devices — hadn’t shown an exact location; it had only narrowed the phone’s approximate whereabouts to “an area spanning at least six different properties and parts of four different blocks,” the lawsuit claims.
Shortly after speaking with McDaniel, Staab sought a search warrant for Johnson’s house, which was included in the area highlighted as the phone’s approximate location — a move that “completely misrepresented what the Find My screenshot showed,” Silverstein said.
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According to the complaint, it took about four hours for law enforcement officers to interview McDaniel, file an affidavit, have a search warrant approved and then travel to Johnson’s house — approximately the same amount of time it took officials to search the home, which left the house in disarray and resulted in a shattered sense of safety, privacy and peace for Johnson, the lawsuit alleges. No phone was recovered.
Silverstein said the raid was a violation of Johnson’s Fourth Amendment rights, which protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures by officials.
“It’s not probable cause to search one particular house if it’s equally probable that [the phone] is in any five other houses or equally probable that it’s in the street somewhere,” he added.
Silverstein said the house where Johnson has lived for four decades — the place where she raised her children — no longer feels much like home. The episode has left her “absolutely shaken.”
“Just to explain how shocking this was: Imagine all these guys pouring out of an armored vehicle with guns strapped to their thighs,” he said. “And [Johnson] is just standing there.”
“Being in the house now just helps to remind her of what happened all the time,” Silverstein added.