The ACLU of Colorado has filed a lawsuit against the City of Colorado Springs over the arrest and search of activist Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta during a July 31, 2021 protest. The Chinook Center, a nonprofit organization in Southeast Colorado Springs, is also a plaintiff. The lawsuit alleges the City of Colorado Springs and its officers obtained unjustified search warrants for the private Facebook messages of the Chinook Center and all of Ms. Armendariz Unzueta’s personal devices, including her cell phone, laptop, and external hard drives. According to the ACLU, the warrants failed to comply with foundational constitutional requirements intended to safeguard privacy.
Armendariz Unzueta and Chinook Center members participated in a housing rights march in Colorado Springs on July 31, 2021, which led to the arrest of protest leaders during the march. According to the complaint, “CSPD[Colorado Springs Police Department] 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.’ 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 warrant was an unjustified effort to intrude on the private messages of a group whose political expression the CSPD dislikes.”
Armendariz Unzueta was arrested and served a search warrant weeks after the march. “CSPD also arrested and charged Armendariz for 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,” notes the complaint. “CSPD seized Armendariz’s cell phones, her laptops, and an external hard drive without any justification or probable cause that they contained specific, particularized evidence of the alleged bike-dropping crime. Then CSPD sought and executed a warrant to copy her phones and devices in their entirety and search them for evidence of her political views, her political associations, and her relationship with the Chinook Center. There was no probable cause for this search and it was not limited to a search for any particular evidence. 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 ACLU’s complaint also notes the long-term undercover operation that targeted the Chinook Center. “CSPD and 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,” notes the complaint. “Detective Rogers provided a fake name (Chelsie Kurti) to the organizations and posed as an activist interested in supporting their work. On information and belief, knowing that the activists were politically active, Detective Rogers registered to vote under the fake name that she provided to activists, which itself is a crime. The initiation of surveillance of the activist community in Colorado Springs coincided with the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, in response to the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the August 2019 killing by CSPD of a 19-year-old black man in Colorado Springs named De’Von Bailey.”
The FBI’s involvement in investigating and surveilling protesters and organizers was documented in journalist Trevor Aaronson’s podcast, Alphabet Boys, which detailed the role Michael “Mickey” Windecker, an FBI informant, played in Denver’s racial justice protests during the summer of 2020. Windecker was paid over $20,000 during the summer of 2020. The money expended on Windecker resulted in one conviction, after Windecker, a felon, convinced activist Zebb Hall to buy him a gun. Windecker was also involved in the events that led to activist Bryce Shelby to lose his firearms under Colorado’s red flag law after discussing plans to kill Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser — who, recordings reveal, Shelby repeatedly confused with the Denver District Attorney.
Windecker’s work as an informant in Denver led to a JTTF investigation of the Chinook Center and other activists in Colorado Springs. The use of a CSPD undercover officer, working with the FBI’s JTTF, was exposed after the arrest of Armendariz Unzueta and others.
The protests in Denver and Colorado Springs included violent clashes with police, which has cost the Denver Police Department $14 million in subsequent excessive force lawsuits, while multiple lawsuits against the Colorado Springs Police Department have also been settled.
In September, 2022 the Colorado Springs City Council approved a settlement of at least $100,000 to Tara Hadam, after CSPD officers “repeatedly sprayed her directly in the face with extremely painful noxious chemical sprays” while “Ms. Hadam stood with her hands held high in the air in front of a line of CSPD officers in full riot gear” during a June 2, 2020 protest, according to her civil complaint.
In February, 2022 Colorado Springs agreed to pay $175,000 to Celia Palmer, who was ambushed, tackled, and slammed to the ground by officers shortly after the incident involving Hadam. One of the officers named in Palmer’s lawsuit, Keith Wrede, was disciplined for commenting “kill ‘em all” on a Facebook livestream during a June. 30, 2020 protest that blocked Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs.
The ACLU’s complaint also highlights violent rhetoric from CSPD officers during the July 31, 2021 protest. “Because they were worried that the housing march might disrupt the sesquicentennial parade, another CSPD officer remarked: ‘Just get on that bullhorn and be like, ‘Hey if y’all would like to see a parade and like to see these motherfuckers to quit interrupting it, just handle that for us… stone ‘em all to death,’” notes the complaint. “A CSPD officer responded: ‘Call us when we need to collect the bodies.’”
According to the Complaint, CSPD Officer Scott Alamo said of Chinook Center organizer Jon Christiansen, “Boot to the face. It’s going to happen,” and “Should we EPSO [El Paso County Sheriff’s Office] SWAT the shit outta these dudes and just throw flash-bangs at everyone?”
Three Colorado Springs police officers are currently the subject of a federal lawsuit after an Oct. 9, 2022 traffic stop in which Dalvin Gadson sustained a black eye, back injuries, chest wall contusions, an abrasion to the right side of his back, and a closed head injury.
“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,” said Armendariz Unzueta in a news release. “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.”