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ACLU Lawsuit Alleges Golden, Denver Police Illegally Seized Membership Lists, Advocacy Materials, from Denver Social Justice Organization


March 8, 2002

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Colorado (ACLU) filed suit against Golden and Denver law enforcement officers today alleging that they violated the rights of a Denver social justice organization when they searched its office and illegally confiscated membership lists, pamphlets, and other materials that are protected by the First Amendment.


The suit was filed on behalf of the twenty-year-old Denver Justice and Peace Committee (DJPC), an interfaith grass-roots organization with over 800 members that advocates for peace and social justice in Latin America. On December 14, 2000, Golden police officers, assisted by Denver officers, appeared at the DJPC office with a search warrant.


"After videotaping and photographing the entire premises, the officers spent three and one-half hours rummaging through closets, desk drawers, cupboards, file cabinets, and file folders," said Lino Lipinsky, of McKenna & Cuneo, who filed the lawsuit as a volunteer cooperating attorney for the ACLU. "They illegally confiscated membership lists, mailing lists, phone tree lists, leaflets, pamphlets, posters, newsletters, articles, and other advocacy materials."


Police were investigating vandalism that had occurred several days earlier at Kohl's Department Store in Golden. DJPC had sponsored a rally at the store in support of striking workers in Nicaragua who produce some of Kohl's clothing. While the rally was in progress, four unidentified individuals dressed as Santa Claus arrived on the scene, entered the store, and spray-painted merchandise.


Although DJPC had no connection to the vandalism, which it publicly condemned, Golden police sought and obtained a warrant to search the DJPC's office, confiscate its membership list, and seize any "pamphlets, papers, and flyers that are protest-related"; "Posters that are protest related"; and any "Videotape and still photographs of persons protesting any organization or business."

"Any police officer should have known that such a broadly-worded warrant violates the First Amendment right of political association and expression and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. "Membership lists, pamphlets, papers and flyers are not evidence of crime. They are evidence that DJPC engages in lawful advocacy and political association that is protected by the Constitution."


According to the ACLU, the search also violated the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which Congress passed as an added layer of legal protection for newspapers, advocacy organizations, and others who disseminate information to the public. When police officers seek evidence from such organizations, Lipinsky explained, the statute requires them to rely first on a subpoena before resorting to a search warrant. "A subpoena can be challenged in court if it is overbroad," Lipinsky explained. "And when the subpoena is appropriate, the organization itself can find the requested materials in its files. Congress enacted the Privacy Protection Act to ensure that police officers could not barge into the offices of an organization engaged in First Amendment activities and start rifling desk drawers and file cabinets. What happened in this case is exactly what Congress was trying to prevent."


"In addition to confiscating DJPC's membership list, which spanned 60 pages and listed over 800 individuals, police confiscated membership lists and mailing lists of other organizations, as well as numerous additional documents that were not included or specified in the already-overbroad warrant," Lipinsky said. According to the lawsuit, police confiscated hand-written notes taken at DJPC board meetings; paste-up versions of the organization's newsletter, and handwritten notes about articles to be included in future newsletters.

Police also seized an envelope addressed to Kohl's management which contained about 20 individually-signed letters from Kohl's shoppers expressing their support for the union workers in Nicaragua. According to the lawsuit, police confiscated the only copies of these communications, thus preventing them from reaching their intended recipient.


After obtaining the names of over 800 members of DJPC, the lawsuit says, Golden police officers divided up the list and called every tenth individual to question them about the vandalism at Kohl's. They also contacted each DJPC board member, as well as members of other groups whose names appeared on phone lists and mailing lists found at the DJPC office.


"Golden police inappropriately conducted this investigation as though evidence of political views and political association itself were evidence of crime," Silverstein said. "They contacted and questioned 100 individuals solely on the basis of their political opinions, associations, and activities. Such an investigative tactic is not only calculated to intimidate and to chill the exercise of First Amendment rights, it is bad police work. Golden police did not obtain one useful piece of information in any of the one hundred interviews they conducted with individuals whose names they obtained illegally from the search of the DJPC office."


The lawsuit also alleges a Denver police officer engaged in racial profiling by singling out Luis Espinosa-Organista, DJPC's Hispanic office manager, for a pat-down search without cause. No one else on the scene was subjected to a frisk.


The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Denver. In addition to the City of Golden and the City and County of Denver, defendants include Golden police officers Jeff Kreutzer, Kirsten J. Puttkammer, John Evans, and Becky J. Ryder; Denver police officer David Pontarelli; Jefferson County District Attorney David J. Thomas, as well as an unnamed employee in the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office and an as-yet-unknown Denver police officer.

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