Jaqueline "Jax" Armendariz Unzueta

Jaqueline "Jax" Armendariz Unzueta (center) stands with Chinook Center executive team members Alex Archuleta (left) and John Christiansen on July 23, 2023 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

(Photo: Joanna Kulesza/ACLU of Colorado)

ACLU Sues Colorado Springs, FBI Over 'Unconstitutional' Spying on Activists' Devices

"Unless called to account in this lawsuit, the police could seize and search the phones and devices of anyone in our community."

The ACLU of Colorado on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Colorado Springs, four members of the Colorado Springs Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, accusing them of illegally spying on the private communications of a local activist arrested on minor—and critics say dubious—charges during a 2021 housing rights protest.

Filed in the U.S. District Court of Colorado in Denver on behalf of Jacqueline "Jax" Armendariz Unzueta and the Chinook Center, a progressive community advocacy group, the lawsuit accuses the defendants of perpetrating the "unconstitutional and invasive search and seizure of the phones, computers, devices, and private chats of people and groups whose message the CSPD dislikes."

"Over the last several years, CSPD has engaged in a concerted campaign against activists in the region, abusing its powers to target them through infiltration, surveillance, and dragnet warrants to search and seize their personal devices and digital data without justification," the complaint states.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirms "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

The lawsuit contends that the actions of CSPD detectives Daniel Summey and B.K. Steckler, CSPD officers Jason Otero and Roy Ditzler, and the FBI "expose a pervasive disregard for long-standing constitutional rules meant to constrain law enforcement and protect personal privacy, with far-reaching implications for everyone in our community."

The Chinook Center—which describes itself as a "progressive, mission-driven community space that empowers and connects people and grassroots organizations working for social, economic, and environmental justice in the Pikes Peak region"—helped organize a July 31, 2021 housing rights march in which Armendariz Unzueta participated.

According to the lawsuit, "CSPD targeted Chinook Center leaders for arrest at the march, sharing pictures of the activists in advance and stating that they would get a 'boot to the head.'"

The suit continues:

Ultimately, a CSPD commander ordered arrests of prominent Chinook Center members for marching in the street, even after the protestors complied with police requests to move onto the sidewalk.

Colorado Springs police then obtained a search warrant—one of several that are the subject of this lawsuit—to search the Chinook Center's private chats on Facebook Messenger. The warrant did not even purport to be supported by probable cause. It was not limited to a search for any particular evidence, let alone evidence of a particular crime, and it was unlimited as to topics.

"The warrants targeting Chinook and Armendariz Unzueta were part of a pattern and practice of unconstitutional actions intended to teach activists a lesson: Colorado Springs police would retaliate against political expression with dragnet warrants to chill free speech," the lawsuit states.

"Tolerating or accepting this justification would eviscerate the Fourth Amendment and justify unbounded intrusions into the privacy of anyone even associated with someone accused of a crime," the complaint asserts. "Unless called to account in this lawsuit, the police could seize and search the phones and devices of anyone in our community."

CSPD's justification for the seizure and search of Armendariz Unzueta's devices is based on the fact that she was arrested for marching in the street and allegedly dropping her bicycle in the path of an officer during the march, "even though the officer easily avoided the bicycle and was not injured in any way," according to the suit.

The arrest, police said, gave them the right to search activists' devices because protesters used them to share photos and messages.

The FBI is named in the lawsuit because, according to the filing, agents at its Rocky Mountain Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory illegally seized, searched, and copied Armendariz Unzueta's personal devices.

"CSPD and the FBI searched these devices for the words 'human,' 'right,' 'housing,' 'protest,' and 'police,' among many other terms, without any time limitation whatsoever," the filing states. "They also seized and reviewed all of Armendariz Unzueta's private personal photos, videos, text messages, and emails for more than a two-month period, again unlimited by subject or topic."

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, Armendariz Unzueta said that "this case is about love for my community. I hope CSPD will never again target, terrorize, and attempt to silence others as they did to me."

"We cannot let CSPD continue to be arrogant bullies with badges and guns that violate the civil rights of innocent people because of their entrenched—and ignorant—political and racial biases," she added.

"This case is about love for my community. I hope CSPD will never again target, terrorize, and attempt to silence others as they did to me."

ACLU of Colorado legal director Tim Macdonald said that "our Constitution recognized the profound danger that these types of warrants would have on freedom and liberty and precluded them. Indeed, these types of general warrants were common in the time of King George and helped lead to the American Revolution."

"Unless called to account in this lawsuit, the police could seize and search the phones and devices of anyone in our community," Macdonald warned.

As noted in the lawsuit, "the FBI had been spying on the Chinook Center and other activist groups since the summer of 2020, with CSPD Detective April Rogers masquerading undercover as an activist, participant, and volunteer with Chinook and allied organizations" during racial justice protests in response to the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the earlier CSPD killing of De'Von Bailey, who was shot four times in the back after someone called to falsely report a robbery as revenge.

This was part of the FBI's wider infiltration campaign targeting Back Lives Matter and, according to critics, a continuation of the agency's longtime efforts to monitor, infiltrate, and destroy social justice movements.

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