Reporting from Denver — The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that a prosecutor improperly searched thousands of files in a tax preparer's office while looking for illegal immigrants who had committed identity theft.
In a 4-3 decision, the court termed the search a violation of privacy and upheld a lower court's order to throw out evidence against a defendant who had sued.
"A taxpayer has a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her tax returns and return information, even when that information is in the custody of a tax preparer," Justice Michael L. Bender wrote in the court's opinion.
Last year, the Weld County district attorney's office had served a search warrant on Amalia's Translation and Tax Services in Greeley, about 60 miles northeast of Denver. Investigators combed through 5,000 files, looking for instances where illegal immigrants had used Social Security numbers that didn't belong to them.
Immigrants' rights and privacy advocates challenged the searches as intrusive, and lower courts agreed. But before the searches were thrown out, about 30 illegal immigrants pleaded guilty to identity theft and were turned over for deportation.
Mark Silverstein, an attorney for the ACLU of Colorado, which challenged the searches, said, "It's a good day for the right of privacy in Colorado."
Weld County Dist. Atty. Ken Buck lamented that some people his office was investigating remained free. "We have 1,338 U.S. citizens whose identities were stolen and will continue to be used throughout the country," he said.