Imagine your 77 year old grandmother sitting at home one day and an entire SWAT team shows up and raids her house, just because someone’s stolen iPhone supposedly pings at the location. No phone call, no knock and talk, no investigation at all. Just SWAT team. Well that happened.
It was January 4, 2022. Ruby Johnson, 77 years old, a law-abiding citizen and grandmother, was alone at her home. She lives in a neighborhood called Montbello – considered to be one of Denver’s minority neighborhoods, located in northeast Denver, Colorado. Denver Police SWAT executed a search warrant at her home, looking for a stolen vehicle and guns, based entirely on Apple tracking software, “Find My iPhone.” They found nothing and achieved nothing but the contempt they earned from the victim, her family and others in the neighborhood.
The day before the raid, a 2007 white Chevy truck with Texas license plates was stolen from a downtown Denver hotel parking garage. The driver rammed it through the gate and fled. Inside was $4,000 cash, two drones and an iPhone 11. Hours later, the hotel notified the guest who owned the truck and he began tracking the iPhone via the Find My iPhone app. The app supposedly led to Ruby Johnson’s home, before it disappeared.
Based solely on that, the Denver Police Department obtained a search warrant. They chose not to conduct any surveillance or other investigation at the location. They didn’t even bother to drive by the house to see if the stolen truck was there. Or maybe even next door. Nor did they bother to even go perform one of their beloved “knock and talks” at the actual location where the phone pinged. Instead, they activated the SWAT team. Just to be safe, of course. It is a minority neighborhood, after all….
About a dozen Denver SWAT officers poured into the home. They sifted through boxes with the help of a K-9 unit. They used a battering ram to try to open the rear garage door. They broke down the attic door. They also cut the lock to her shed.
Officer Joe Montoya, the head stormtrooper, in an interview with channel 9 news, said officers researched the property and knew 77 year old Ruby Johnson lived at the home alone, which is why they used the “lowest threshold of aggression.” If this SWAT team, along with an armored vehicle, is their lowest threshold of aggression, I’d say their higher thresholds must involve those new-fangled exploding robots. Officer Montoya, like a good government trooper, was just following orders. They’re just doing what stormtroopers do. It’s up to prosecutors and judges to stop them. They have no minds of their own. Here’s what he said:
“I’m not going to second guess the investigation,” he said. “The proper steps were taken. The place where that would have been questioned would have been the DA’s Office and the judge’s level. And they felt comfortable signing that warrant.”
So what about them? Denver Deputy District Attorney Ashley Beck and Judge Beth Faragher both approved the warrant. Kristin Wood, a spokesperson for Denver County Court, said: “Judge Faragher signed the search warrant because she found probable cause existed,” Wood wrote in an email. “If a judge did not find probable cause, he/she would not sign the search warrant.” Prosecutor Beck also would not directly comment. Instead, a spokesperson wrote in an email that the warrant passed legal muster: “I can tell you that our office is obligated to review every search warrant the Denver Police Department writes to ensure it is legally sufficient based on the facts to which the detective swears,” Carolyn Tyler wrote in an email.
So, at least through their spokespersons, the officers blame the judge and prosecutor; the judge blames the prosecutor and officers, and the prosecutor blames the officers and the judge. This is perfectly representative of the efficiency and competency of your government. This is why the DMV runs so smoothly and is your favorite place to visit.
It’s true though that there are two important things to look at when reviewing warrants:
- The information provided by law enforcement, under oath, to the judge reviewing the allegations for probable cause; and
- Whether those allegations are sufficient to comprise probable cause for the issuance of the warrant.
Looking at the actual search warrant application, completed by Detective Gary Staab, it appears that he relied solely on representations made to him by the owner of the stolen items and did absolutely nothing himself. He notes in the application to the judge that the owner told him that the iPhone pinged to the house and that he drove by the location in a rented vehicle, but that he did not see his stolen truck there.
However, the application notes, theoretically, the stolen phone could be inside the closed garage at the residence. Also theoretically, which the detective notes in his copy and paste warrant, his vast experience tells him that stolen items can be removed from a stolen vehicle and theoretically placed in a garage.
That’s pretty much it. He includes a copy of the owner’s Find My iPhone screenshot and his photos of the residence. The detective did nothing himself. Instead of actually going and knocking on the door, talking to people – you know, detective work – let’s just activate the SWAT team and bust down the door. It’s a black neighborhood, after all. Guns were stolen. Therefore we have black people with guns, potentially. Better bring the armored vehicle as well. Yes she’s a 77 year old grandmother with no criminal history. But you never know. Officers have to make it home that night.
As officers searched her home, Ruby Johnson waited in the back seat of a police car. She told channel 9 news afterwards that the experience was traumatizing and led her to feel unsafe in the home she has lived in for about 40 years. “When I start thinking about it, tears start coming down,” she said. Ruby’s longtime friends have noticed a sadness they hadn’t seen in her before. They don’t see her smile anymore.
Officer Joe Montoya, division chief of investigations with DPD, said the department did not intend to harm Johnson and regrets that the warrant caused suffering.
“We can always apologize and I’d be willing to apologize that there was a warrant issued and evidence was not found there,” Montoya said. “That’s a given, but I don’t think there was anything done to intentionally traumatize her.”
They just don’t get it, do they? They chose to obtain a search warrant and send a SWAT team there. They knew that the only person who lived there was a 77 year old woman who was a law abiding citizen. Yet they sent a SWAT team there first, instead of treating the woman as Officer Montoya no doubt would want his own grandmother treated. They chose to traumatize her. Because they only think of themselves. Officer safety is the only thing that matters to them.
By the way, the stolen truck was later recovered two days after the warrant was executed about six miles away in Aurora. The stolen guns were not in the truck, of course. No arrests have been made.
The point here is, this is a prime example of the fact that police and government misconduct can happen to you, even if you’ve done nothing wrong. This was all done lawfully. Valid search warrant. Valid search. Innocent victim. Wrong house. No stolen items found. This will continue to happen because police officers are not held accountable for their actions. Prosecutors are not held accountable for their actions. And judges certainly aren’t held accountable for their actions. I can guarantee you these things would stop happening if qualified immunity was abolished. If prosecutorial absolute immunity was abolished. If judicial immunity was abolished. But as it is now, they just don’t care, because there are no consequences. The only thing we can do is expose what they’ve done.