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A woman wins $3.8 million verdict after SWAT team searches wrong home based on Find My iPhone app

By COLLEEN SLEVIN, Associated Press
Published: March 4, 2024, 6:13pm

DENVER — A 78-year-old woman who sued two police officers after her home was wrongly searched by a SWAT team looking for a stolen truck has won a $3.76 million jury verdict under a new Colorado law that allows people to sue police over violations of their state constitutional rights.

A jury in state court in Denver ruled in favor of Ruby Johnson late Friday and the verdict was announced Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which helped represent her in the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged that police got a search warrant for the home after the owner of a stolen truck, which had four semi-automatic handguns, a rifle, a revolver, two drones, $4,000 cash and an iPhone inside, tracked the phone to Johnson’s home using the Find My app, and passed that information on to police.

According to the lawsuit, Johnson, a retired U.S. Postal Service worker and grandmother, had just gotten out of the shower on Jan. 4, 2022, when she heard a command over a bullhorn for anyone inside to exit with their hands up. Wearing only a bathrobe, she opened her front door to see an armored personnel carrier parked on her front lawn, police vehicles along her street and men in full military-style gear carrying rifles and a police dog.

Detective Gary Staab had wrongly obtained the warrant to search Johnson’s home because he did not point out that the app’s information is not precise and provides only a general location where a phone could be, the lawsuit said.

Lawyers for Staab and the supervisor who approved the search warrant, Sgt. Gregory Buschy, who was also sued, did not respond to an email and telephone calls seeking comment. The Denver Police Department, which was not sued, declined to comment on the verdict.

The lawsuit was brought under a provision of a sweeping police reform bill passed in 2020 soon after the murder of George Floyd and is the first significant case to go to trial, the ACLU of Colorado said. State lawmakers created a right to sue individual police officers for state constitutional violations in state court. Previously, people alleging police misconduct could only file lawsuits in federal court, where it has become difficult to pursue such cases, partly because of the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. It shields officials, including police, from lawsuits for money as a result of things they do in the course of their job.

The police used a battering ram to get into Johnson’s garage even though she had explained how to open the door and broke the ceiling tiles to get into her attic, standing on top of one of her brand new dining room chairs, according to the lawsuit. They also broke the head off a doll created to look just like her, complete with glasses, ACLU of Colorado legal director Tim Macdonald said.

Johnson is Black but the lawsuit did not allege that race played a role, he said.

Macdonald said the biggest damage was done to Johnson’s sense of safety in the home where she raised three children as a single mother, he said, temporarily forgoing Christmas and birthday presents to help afford it. She suffered ulcers and trouble sleeping and eventually moved to a different neighborhood.

“For us, the damage was always about the psychological and the emotional harm to Ms. Johnson,” he said.

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