Court Says Raid Violated Illegal Immigrants' Privacy Rights
December 14, 2009 - 4:25 PMThe Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that Weld County authorities violated the Fourth Amendment and privacy rights of suspected illegal immigrants when they used tax returns to potentially build hundreds of identity theft cases against them.
The ruling affirmed a decision by a Weld County district judge who suppressed evidence against one of the defendants. That judge said authorities had no probable cause to search the man's tax returns and that the documents are confidential.
The defendant was one of more than 70 people charged with criminal impersonation and identity theft. Some defendants pleaded guilty and were deported before the district court ruling. Pending the Supreme Court appeal, many had their cases dismissed without prejudice, which gave prosecutors the option of filing cases again if judges had ruled in their favor.
The investigation, dubbed "Operation Numbers Game," marked the first and only time in the U.S. that authorities used tax documents to try to prosecute suspected illegal immigrants.
Prosecutors had said they believed as many as 1,300 immigrants were breaking the law and that they planned to charge more people. The district attorney's office said prosecutors in other states had expressed interest in their method of investigation.
But in March, District Judge James Hartmann Jr. suppressed the evidence against one of the defendants, saying the search warrant was "nothing more than an exploratory search based upon suspicion that some unknown person or persons" committed a crime.
He also said tax records were confidential under federal law and authorities had no right to inspect the documents.
The Hartmann decision "essentially put everything on hold" because other district judges later issued similar rulings, said Kevin Strobel, head of the Greeley Public Defender's Office.
Weld County attorney Michael J. Rourke and the spokeswoman for District Attorney Ken Buck did not immediately return calls. Buck has the option to appeal to federal court.
Weld County authorities launched their investigation after a Texas man told them his identity was being used by a Greeley resident. The suspect in that case told sheriff's investigators that he was filing taxes with Amalias' Translation and Tax Services, a firm that catered to Latinos in the agricultural city of Greeley, where they comprise about a third of the population.
Investigators obtained a search warrant and seized thousands of tax documents from the business and used them to arrest dozens of people. The American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued on behalf of the business owner, saying the search of her property was illegal.
An appeal in that case is pending with the Colorado Supreme Court.
The identity theft investigation angered immigrant advocacy groups, including the National Immigration Law Center, which said the immigrants were following the law by paying taxes. Some of the immigrants said they hoped that doing so would help their chances of someday becoming permanent residents.
Anyone who earns income in the U.S. is required to pay taxes regardless of legal status. Many of the people targeted in Weld County's investigation were filing taxes with government-issued taxpayer identification numbers, a practice that is openly advertised at several tax-preparing business.
The IRS has said that people who use the numbers, called Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, have a tax liability in the billions.
Strobel said Monday's ruling shows that despite the heated political debate about illegal immigration, "there's still a constitutional framework for how authorities deal with that population and whether they've committed crimes or not."
"They gotta play by the rules," he said.
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