Denver police raided wrong house; officers relied on phone tracking app - grandmother gets $3.76 million

Andy Rose, CNN | 3/8/2024, 3:03 p.m.
A Colorado jury has awarded $3.76 million to a grandmother whose house was damaged and ransacked after Denver police relied …
This image taken from Denver Police body camera footage provided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado shows Ruby Johnson, a 78-year-old Colorado woman, surrounded by SWAT officers, Jan. 4, 2022, in Colorado. Johnson, who sued two police officers after her home was wrongly searched by a SWAT team looking for a stolen truck, won a $3.76 million jury verdict Monday, March 4, under a new Colorado law that allows people to sue police over violations of their state constitutional rights. Mandatory Credit: Denver Police Department/AP via CNN Newsource

A Colorado jury has awarded $3.76 million to a grandmother whose house was damaged and ransacked after Denver police relied solely on Apple’s “Find My” app and stormed the wrong home, according to court documents.

Ruby Johnson, now 78, still suffers from “severe physical and emotional distress” after officers searching for a stolen truck and guns raided her home and detained her, Johnson’s attorneys say.

Her ordeal evoked other controversial search warrant raids nationwide, including the fatal 2020 raid at the Louisville home of Breonna Taylor that prompted cities across the country to recast how they serve certain search warrants.

In Johnson’s case, the city of Denver is responsible for paying the $3.76 million in losses and punitive damages, even though the two defendant officers were sued as individuals, one of Johnson’s attorneys said.

And though jurors found both officers liable of violating Johnson’s rights, a Denver police investigation found no policy violations, the officers did not face disciplinary action, and both still work in the patrol division, a police department spokesperson told CNN this week.

“We are disturbed by the lack of training or policy changes and hope that the amount of the punitive damages award will send a strong message that the police department must take seriously the constitutional rights of its residents,” Johnson’s attorney Tim Macdonald said.

City officials did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment, and a Denver District Court clerk told CNN on Thursday no appeal had been filed in the case.

“On January 4, 2022, a DPD SWAT team ransacked Ms. Johnson’s home of 43 years based on an alleged location ping from an iPhone’s ‘Find My’ app that the officers did not understand and for which they had no training,” according to a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which sued on behalf of Johnson.

“DPD showed up at Ms. Johnson’s home with an overwhelming, intimidating show of unnecessary force. Over a bullhorn, the amplified command of the SWAT team loudly ordered anyone inside to exit with their hands up,” according to the lawsuit filed against two Denver police officers.

Johnson was detained in her bathrobe for hours, unable to see what police were doing to the home where she had raised three children, the lawsuit states. By the time the raid was over, police had damaged her house, broken a prized possession and left her belongings in disarray.

The lawsuit names two defendants: Detective Gary Staab, who was investigating the stolen truck case and wrote the search warrant affidavit for Johnson’s address, and Sgt. Gregory Buschy, who approved and signed the affidavit. The officers’ attorneys have not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

“The sole basis Defendant Staab identified for connecting the crime to Ms. Johnson’s address was the truck theft victim’s use of Apple’s ‘Find My’ app to try to track an old iPhone that was in the stolen truck,” the lawsuit states. But “use of the app in fact made clear that the iPhone’s location could not be accurately identified, and there was zero basis to single out Ms. Johnson’s home.”

How police looking for a stolen truck with 6 guns ended up at the wrong house

The ordeal started when a thief stole a truck from a Denver hotel on January 3, 2022. The truck’s owner, a guest at the hotel, told police his vehicle “contained four semi-automatic handguns, a tactical military-style rifle, a revolver, two drones, $4,000.00 in cash, and an old iPhone 11,” the lawsuit states.

The case was assigned to Staab the next day. The theft victim “told Defendant Staab that he had used the Apple ‘Find My’ app to try to find his stolen belongings,” the complaint says.

Apple’s “Find My” app “uses information from cellular, Wi-Fi-, and GPS networks and Bluetooth to determine the approximate location of people and their devices. It is not intended as a law enforcement tool,” the lawsuit states.

Numerous factors can hinder the accuracy of the “Find My” app, such as the number of visible GPS satellites, bad weather, vehicle roofs, tall buildings, mountains and other obstructions, the complaint says.

Nonetheless, “Defendant Staab quickly drafted an affidavit seeking a warrant to search Ms. Johnson’s home for the stolen items” based on results from the app.

The affidavit claimed the missing iPhone had “pinged” to the address of Johnson’s home the morning of “01/03/2021” and again in the afternoon of “01/03/2021,” according to the lawsuit. Johnson’s attorneys said the presumed typos in the year – 2021 instead of 2022 – indicate “the absence of care with which this affidavit was drafted, reviewed, and approved.”

According to the lawsuit, the search warrant affidavit also shows a screenshot from the app, with a circle around the general area where the missing iPhone may have pinged. But the circle spans “at least six different properties and parts of four different blocks in the vicinity” of Johnson’s home.

There was no reason to believe the missing iPhone was more likely to be in Johnson’s home “rather than on any of several neighbors’ properties, or discarded on a nearby street by a passing driver,” the lawsuit states.

And “readily available user guidance that Apple posts on the internet about the ‘Find My’ app makes it clear that this screenshot eliminated any rational possibility that the pings justified a search of Ms. Johnson’s home,” the complaint says. “Defendant Staab’s affidavit omitted this readily available material information, and these material omissions made his affidavit substantially misleading to the reviewing judge.”

But Buschy approved Staab’s affidavit and appeared to do so hastily, the lawsuit says. The supervisor simply signed his name on the affidavit rather than following department protocol and adding his printed name, badge number and date, Johnson’s attorneys said.

“Defendant Buschy failed to properly review the warrant in a way that would have halted the execution of the unconstitutional search warrant affidavit prepared by Defendant Staab,” the complaint says.

Instead, “Defendant Buschy requested DPD SWAT’s assistance in the raid of Ms. Johnson’s home.”

Confusion, horror and lasting physical pain

Johnson, a retired US Postal Service worker, got out of the shower to find an armored SWAT vehicle on her front lawn and officers in tactical gear swarming her house, according to the lawsuit.

“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, a K9 German Shepherd in tow,” it says.

Officers detained Johnson in the back of a squad car for hours while police ransacked her home and gave “no explanation of why her home was stormed or why she needed to be detained,” the lawsuit states.

“During the search, DPD questioned Ms. Johnson about how to enter her garage,” the complaint says. “Ms. Johnson told the DPD officers where her garage door opener was and gave instructions on how to open the garage’s front door.”

But “DPD disregarded Ms. Johnson’s instructions and used a battering ram to destroy the back garage door and door frame,” the lawsuit states.

Police also broke the head off a collectible doll her youngest son had given to her as a gift almost three decades ago, it states.

By the time officers were done, Johnson’s home was in disarray. The truck theft victim’s iPhone was nowhere to be found. And Johnson’s “privacy, sense of safety, and peace in her home have been shattered,” the complaint says.

The retiree could no longer bear to live in her own house after the ordeal and has stayed with her children in Colorado and Texas. Still, she hasn’t been able to sleep through the night. Johnson has also developed six ulcers since the raid, including some that have lasted about two years, the lawsuit states.

Millions awarded, police policy unchanged

A jury ruled in favor of Johnson last week and awarded her $3.76 million in damages.

The jury found Staab and Buschy liable for $1.25 million each in punitive damages. In addition, the two officers are liable for a combined $1.26 million in compensatory damages for Johnson’s pain and suffering.

Even though both officers were sued individually, ultimately the city of Denver is responsible for paying the damages, one of Johnson’s attorneys told CNN.

“The defendants were sued in their individual capacity because that is a requirement of the new state law here in Colorado allowing citizens to enforce their state constitutional rights,” Macdonald wrote in an email. “But, pursuant to that same state law, the city must pay the amount of the judgment.”

As for Staab and Buschy, both officers are still employed in DPD’s patrol division, police spokesperson Doug Schepman said Wednesday.

“Our Internal Affairs bureau did a review of the incident. The review did not result in formal discipline for either of them,” Schepman told CNN. “No policy violations were found.”

In addition, “There has not been an update to policy” in light of the raid at Johnson’s home, Schepman said. “We have not changed policies related to search warrants.”

Macdonald, Johnson’s attorney, said he hopes the combined $2.5 million in punitive damages will make the police department reconsider.