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ACLU sues Weld DA Ken Buck and Weld sheriff John Cooke
[January 28, 2009]

ACLU sues Weld DA Ken Buck and Weld sheriff John Cooke

(Greeley Tribune (CO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 28--The American Civil Liberties Union has made good on its threat to file a lawsuit against Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and Weld District Attorney Ken Buck, alleging their joint campaign to arrest illegal immigrants for identity theft violated privacy laws.

In a class action lawsuit filed in Weld District Court late Monday, the ACLU of Colorado argued that Cooke and Buck are violating the privacy rights of thousands of taxpayers by keeping copies of confidential information. That information was obtained in an illegal search, according to the ACLU, of Amalia's Translation and Tax Service in Greeley as a part of the Operation Number Games campaign.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Amalia Cerrillo, owner of the tax service, and her clients, Luis Noriega, and three other clients being referred to as John, Frank and Robert Doe, who want their identities kept confidential.

"It doesn't surprise me that the ACLU is taking the side of illegal immigrants over the side of U.S. citizens who have become victims of identity theft," Buck said Tuesday.

"You can take anything to absurdity, and that's what they're trying to do here," he said.

Deputies searched Amalia's business last October after they learned a man suspected of possessing a stolen Social Security number had filed his taxes there and that many other suspected illegal immigrants also used her services. They sought records from 2006-07, but according to the lawsuit, ended up sifting through as many as 4,900 people's files dating back to 2000.

Prosecutors allege as many as 1,338 defendants used false or stolen Social Security numbers to work in Weld County, then obtained tax returns with Amalia's help. They were able to do so because the IRS issues nonresidents a tax number called an ITIN for purposes of filing income taxes. According to IRS regulations, Amalia's Tax Service was following the law.

The ACLU complaint alleges the search of her records was illegal, was conducted way beyond the scope of its intent, and was conducted like a fishing expedition, exposing the confidential information of thousands of Amalia's clients.

Weld District Court Judge James Hartmann had concerns early on in the case, noting the privacy issues involved in attaching the defendants' tax records to their court files, which are considered open for public inspection. Buck solved that concern by seeking grand jury reviews of the cases in private, which would be followed by further arrest warrants.

Shannon Lyons, a Greeley attorney who is listed as a plaintiff's attorney on the lawsuit, said the main point of the lawsuit is privacy.

"The important thing is, it isn't about immigration, and it's not about identity theft. It's about the right to privacy," Lyons said. "Do people have a right to be secure in knowing they can go to an accountant or bookkeeper and have their taxes processed and think they're complying with federal and state laws by filing taxes" without fear of their records being searched?

"The argument is, nobody's records are safe if Number Games is a valid operation. ... If this is legal, then every accountant, every doctor, every lawyer, their office is subject to search."

ACLU attorneys have likened the search to that of a search for any criminal activity in an apartment building, then rummaging through each apartment to find the crime.

Buck and Cooke argue that they followed the law with the search, which was approved by Weld District Court judge Marcelo Kopcow.

"The law was followed. The warrant gave deputies the ability to search and to seize evidence of crime, and that's what they did and continue to do," Buck said. "The judge found it wasn't a fishing expedition."

Cooke agreed: "It's based on probable cause. We had probable cause to believe there was evidence of other crimes. The judge looked at it and signed it. If a judge thinks it's a fishing expedition, they don't normally sign the warrant."

Attorneys filing the lawsuit are seeking quick hearings to issue an injunction in the case, as they believe Cerrillo has reason to fear continued searches.

"Ms. Cerrillo and ... plaintiffs reasonably fear that without intervention from this court, Ms. Cerrillo will be subjected in the future -- during or soon after the 2008 tax return season -- to another search and seizure of her office and her customers' records," the complaint states.

Cooke said the case infuriated him because it ignores the rights of victims of identity theft by illegal immigrants, and that the IRS and the federal government basically look the other way.

"We just can't turn a blind eye to it," Cooke said. "Someone's got to take a stand. If the federal government is not going to do it because they don't care, someone has to do the right thing and pursue it."

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