Colorado Supreme Court Upholds Illegals’ Privacy Rights—Correctly
By Julian Dunraven, J.D., M.P.A.
This evening, two of my honorable friends here at the PPC, Ben DeGrow and El Presidente, have called my attention to the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in The People v. Gutierrez, in which a 4-3 majority ruled that the state violated the 4th Amendment privacy rights of the defendant in seizing his tax records without a proper warrant showing probable cause. The defendant also happened to be an illegal immigrant. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, as quoted in The Washington Times, is outraged by the decision and would like our honorable friends at Clear the Bench Colorado (CTBC) to add this case to their ever lengthening list of judicial offenses. Holding the judiciary accountable is a laudable goal, but also one that requires a good deal of thought to accomplish in the interest of fairness and justice. It requires more than cursory analysis and gut reactions. It requires asking whether the Court remained faithful to the Constitution. Contrary to Mr. Tancredo’s objections, I believe CTBC can point to this decision as one in which the Mullarkey majority finally acted correctly.
First of all, it is important to understand that anyone in this country, legal or otherwise, has 4th Amendment protections. The 4th Amendment is not limited to citizens, but considered one of the basic rights of humankind. The British once made the mistake of applying its protections only to British citizens, and the colonists responded with the American Revolution. For that reason, the 4th Amendment states:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Also, it is important to understand that the U.S. expects all people in this country to pay taxes, regardless of immigration status. To accommodate both legal and illegal immigrants who often lack Social Security Numbers (SSN), they are permitted to file taxes with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN).
Now that we have clarified those basic points, allow me to give you a few facts about this case. The Weld County Sheriff’s Department investigated an undocumented immigrant named Servando Trejo on charges of identity theft. Trejo admitted to being an illegal immigrant and that he used a false name and SSN to obtain work. He further informed police that he had filed income taxes using an ITIN rather than the false SSN. He then filed his taxes through Amalia’s Tax Service in Greeley. He said that Amalia’s had helped him obtain the ITIN and implied that all illegal immigrants in the area know to use Amalia’s.
The owner of Amalia’s, told investigators that she often prepared taxes for illegal immigrants. She further speculated that most people applying for ITINs were illegal immigrants and that most of her clients using ITINs have SSNs belonging to someone else.
On the basis of this information, the police secured a warrant to search Amalia’s Tax Service for all tax returns filed in 2006-2007 with ITINs which did not match SSNs on wage earning documents such as W2 forms. They speculated that this would be an effective method to fish for those engaged in identity theft, even calling it “Operation Numbers Game.” Unfortunately, the files were not kept by date, but by client. Thus, the police seized all 5000 client files. They proceeded to examine each file, irrespective of the date limitation in the warrant. One file with a mismatch between SSN and ITIN belonged to Ricardo Gutierrez, who was subsequently charged with identity theft. He argued, however, that the police violated his 4th Amendment rights in obtaining this evidence and should be barred from using it. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with him.
The Right to Privacy and Probable Cause:
The Court’s reasoning is fairly simple. Most people expect their tax records to be fairly confidential. After all, they contain so much information about income, investments, property, family, et cetera as to paint a fairly basic picture of our lives. We do not want just anyone to have access to that. We do not even want any government agency to have access to that at will. Thus, the 4th Amendment, bolstered by Congress’s specific legislation, ensures that our tax papers enjoy the same privacy as we would have in our own home.
Of course, this means that, to invade our privacy, the police need specific warrants. They cannot simply say, “We want all tax records,” and hope they find something interesting. They have to have some reasonable and specific suspicion first, and identify us as particular suspects before they go rummaging about our things. This is the nature of probable cause, and exactly what the police failed to achieve in this case. Instead, they went fishing.
The warrant the police obtained was not limited to their original suspect. They did not even limit themselves to the dates the warrant specified. They examined all files of every individual client despite the fact they had no basis to suspect any of those individuals of wrongdoing. For these reasons, the warrant was overly broad, utterly eviscerating the purposes of the 4th Amendment. No reasonable police officer could have thought such a blatant fishing expedition would be valid. If it were, police might as well start randomly inspecting homes to see if they find any evidence of illegal activity. Dreadful thought.
In the dissent, Justice Coats makes the point that the police did have probable cause to suspect that the owner of Amalia’s knowingly aided and abetted instances of identity theft if she knew some of the SSNs were false. As such, the police could have obtained a warrant to search for mismatched ITINs and SSNs which would indicate a pattern of fraud on the part of Amalia’s. This would have allowed them to conduct the search exactly as they did—but this time without violations of the 4th Amendment.
However, this is not what happened. Neither the police nor the district attorney even suggested any wrongdoing on the part of Amalia’s. They were interested only in fishing for possible but unknown wrongdoing on the part of Amalia’s unidentified clients. Justice Coats fails to recognize that fact and Justice Bender’s majority opinion is correct to distinguish it. Although a search for fraud on the part of Amalia’s Tax Services would have provided the same information as an unspecified search of unknown clients in an attempt to find evidence of wrongdoing, the former has probable cause to support it while the latter is supported by nothing but the arbitrary will of law enforcement. Though the distinction is fine, it is also of vital importance. And that, my honorable friends, is the difference between a republic of laws and the tyranny of a police state.