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A Colorado Springs police car is seen Nov. 23, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The ACLU of Colorado is suing four Colorado Springs police officers for alleged “Orwellian surveillance” and First Amendment violations after they searched private messages of a progressive nonprofit and the personal cellphone and laptop of one of the group’s members after participating in an equal housing march. 

In its lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Denver, the ACLU alleged the police officers obtained unconstitutional search warrants in July 2021 for messages sent through Facebook Messenger by the Chinook Center, a community center for progressive activists to facilitate projects for grassroots work, after its members held a march advocating for equal housing. 

Officers also searched the home of Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta, an activist and member of the center, and took items that she was wearing or using at the event, along with three cellphones, two computers and an external hard drive, without asserting probable cause, the ACLU alleged. 

“The warrants targeting Chinook and Armendariz 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 stated. 

The city of Colorado Springs and the FBI, who assisted in the search of electronic data, are listed as defendants. 

A spokesman for the Colorado Springs Police Department declined to comment, citing pending litigation. “We believe that it is in the best interest of all parties involved to allow the legal process to take its course without interference,” Robert Tornabene said in a statement. 

A spokesperson for the FBI did not immediately respond to The Sun’s request for comment. 

Tuesday’s lawsuit is not the first time the police department and FBI have been accused of surveilling Colorado Springs’ activism community. In the summer of 2020, a CSPD detective went undercover as an activist and member of the Chinook Center and other organizations, according to the lawsuit. She gained access to member records, phone numbers and other information that CSPD and the FBI used to gather intelligence on the activist community and target members at the housing march, court documents stated. 

According to the lawsuit, Colorado Springs police officers targeted and arrested activists for marching in the street July 31, 2021, while advocating for housing rights. Before the housing march was set to begin, officers were recorded through their body-worn cameras making comments about violence toward the protesters. 

One officer was recorded saying: “Just get on that bullhorn and be like, ‘Hey if y’all would like to see a parade and like to see these motherf****** to quit interrupting it, just handle that for us… stone ‘em all to death.” Another CSPD officer responded: “Call us when we need to collect the bodies,” according to the lawsuit. 

Officers tackled and arrested a Chinook Center leader who was leading the march while holding a white flag with the center’s logo. Armendariz Unzueta, at the time a Colorado-based staff member for Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, saw an officer in riot gear approach her and dropped her bike. The officer sidestepped the bike and was not injured, the lawsuit said, but she was later charged with attempted aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony.

She pleaded guilty to obstruction of a police officer and was sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation, according to the ACLU. The felony charge was dismissed under a plea bargain.

Days after the march, CSPD secured warrants for all Facebook Messenger chats tied to the Chinook Center without establishing probable cause, court documents stated. The affidavit did not identify a crime or a person under investigation, but noted that the center’s members “involved in illegal demonstrations” used social media to plan events. It did not specify what was illegal about the housing march. 

In an arrest warrant, detective Daniel Summey wrote that many protesters were carrying red flags, which he said was a radical political symbol and designated the march “as revolutionary and radical in nature,” according to the suit. Some protesters wore red shirts with the printed text: “Housing is a Human Right,” court documents said. 

Officers took Armendariz Unzueta’s personal digital devices to an FBI-run forensic computer laboratory in Centennial to search and copy data, court documents said. CSPD and the FBI searched the devices for terms like “housing,” “protest,” and “police” without a time limitation, and reviewed all of her private personal photos, videos, text messages and emails for more than two months, not limited by subject or topic. 

CSPD’s investigation of Armendariz Unzueta’s attempted assault charge “could have been achieved through less intrusive means,” said the ACLU,  asking a judge to order that the FBI return or destroy her data. 

The suit claims the housing march was not unlawful, as officers claimed in their search warrant, and called the search of the Chinook Center’s private messages “retaliatory” and intended to inhibit its members’ constitutional right to political expression. 

“This case is about love for my community,” Armendariz Unzueta said in a statement. “I hope CSPD will never again target, terrorize, and attempt to silence others as they did to me.” 

Armendariz Unzueta and the Chinook Center are seeking an unspecified amount in damages. 

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.