DENVER — A judge in Colorado's Weld County has ordered officials to halt an unorthodox sweep of illegal immigrants suspected of identity theft, saying the local sheriff and district attorney may not have had the authority to conduct the operation.
In October, Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and Dist. Atty. Ken Buck launched "Operation Numbers Game," serving a warrant to search thousands of federal income tax returns at the Greeley, Colo., office of a tax preparer with a primarily Latino clientele.
Authorities said the search yielded 1,300 names of people suspected of falsifying or stealing Social Security numbers. So far, 35 have been arrested for investigation of identity theft or criminal impersonation.
The approach is believed to be the first of its kind and has sparked the interest of prosecutors throughout the Southwest.
But Weld County District Judge James Hartmann this week questioned whether the search -- which was authorized by another Weld County district judge -- was legal.
Hartmann noted that federal law protects the confidentiality of federal income tax returns, including those in the possession of a tax preparer. That fact calls into question prosecutions that appear to be "based almost exclusively on information contained in the federal tax returns," Hartmann wrote in his order, which instructs Buck to defend the legality of the search warrant.
Buck was unavailable to comment Friday. But in an interview with the Greeley Tribune, he called the operation valid.
Federal law addresses "when the IRS can release information, but it doesn't prohibit people from getting tax returns in other ways," he told the newspaper. "We obtained a lawful court order. It will be clear that we can proceed with these cases."
In August, Cooke arrested a local man accused of stealing a Social Security number. When the suspect told detectives he had obtained a tax identification number and filed federal returns with the help of tax preparer Amalia Cerrillo, authorities decided to investigate her other clients. Cerrillo is not accused of wrongdoing.
Individual tax identification numbers were created by the Internal Revenue Service in 1996 for taxpayers who don't qualify for a Social Security number but have a tax liability. Many illegal immigrants use these tax ID numbers to file their returns, attaching W-2 forms with the false Social Security numbers they used to get a job.
Weld officials have criticized the IRS for processing returns that include such information.
Latino activists have criticized the operation as targeting people who are trying to do the right thing by paying their taxes.