When a SWAT team showed up outside her house in January and demanded through a loudspeaker that everyone in the house come out with their hands raised, Ruby Johnson was watching television in a robe, hat and slippers, according to court documents.
The SWAT team and Denver police officers had arrived at Mrs. Johnson’s house in an armored vehicle with a German Shepherd. Officers, some in tactical gear with rifles, used a battering ram on the rear garage door of Ms. Johnson’s home and also caused damage inside the house, court records said.
Officers searched for stolen goods while Ms Johnson, 77, waited in a police car. After a few hours, the police left. Their search was fruitless.
In a lawsuit filed last week, Ms. Johnson, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee who lives alone, says a detective, Gary Staab, applied for the warrant based on incorrect information from the Find My app. The mobile application, which helps track missing or lost Apple products, such as iPhones, iPads and MacBooks, led him to believe there were stolen goods in her home, the indictment said.
Mark Silverstein, an attorney for Ms. Johnson and the legal director of the Colorado ACLU, said Monday that Detective Staab, the only defendant named in the lawsuit, should not have applied for the warrant.
“The detective did not have the facts necessary to warrant a search,” said Mr. Silverstein. “His supervisor should have vetoed it. The public prosecutor should not have given the green light for it. The judge should not have approved it and the SWAT team should have stayed home.”
The Denver Police Department said in a statement Monday that it had opened an internal investigation and was working with the Denver County Attorney’s Office to create training for officers on warrants based on applications such as Find My.
“The Department of Public Safety and the Denver Police Department sincerely apologize to Ms. Johnson for any negative impact this situation has had on her,” the department said, adding it hoped to “resolve the matter” without further lawsuits.
Detective Staab, who still works for the police, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. It was unclear if he had a lawyer.
On January 4, according to court documents, he was supposed to investigate a truck that had been reported stolen the day before. The documents state that the owner told police that the truck contained four semi-automatic pistols, a military-style tactical rifle, a revolver, two drones, $4,000 in cash, and an iPhone 11.
The detective interviewed the truck’s owner, Jeremy McDaniel, who told him he had used the Find My app to search for the iPhone the day before and that it had placed the lost phone at an address, according to court documents.
Mr McDaniel, who could not be reached on Monday, also told Detective Staab that he had hired a car to drive past the address but had not seen his lorry. Mr. McDaniel told the detective he suspected his truck could have been in the house’s garage.
The Find My app was created to help owners of Apple products find an “approximate location” of a lost item, according to the legal terms of the app. The tool relies on a combination of cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS networks and Bluetooth data to give users an estimate of where the lost item might be.
The estimated location can be specific enough to identify a single household or broad enough to encompass multiple buildings if the item cannot be pinpointed precisely. In the app’s reviews, many users have reported success in finding lost items, while others have said the app was inaccurate.
Apple, the developers of the Find My app, did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit on Monday.
The lawsuit included a screenshot of the Find My app that linked Mr. McDaniel’s phone to one home, but the radius included parts of other homes and of two streets spanning four-block sections.
“The screenshot provided no basis to believe that McDaniel’s iPhone would likely be in Ms. Johnson’s home, rather than on one of several neighbors’ properties or discarded on a nearby street by a passing driver,” the lawsuit said.
About three hours after interviewing Mr. McDaniel on January 4, Detective Staab obtained a search warrant, and Denver Police Department and SWAT officers soon descended on Mrs. Johnson’s lawn.
After the raid, “Ms. Johnson couldn’t bear to stay in her home,” so she lived near her daughter for a week and then stayed at her son’s home in Houston for several months, the lawsuit said.
Ms Johnson has since returned to her home, but she is considering moving because she “experiences anxiety living alone in her home and is afraid to open the door,” the suit says.