Dog search sparks out­cry

Po­lice’s K-9 probe, with­out war­rant, brings ACLU at­ten­tion

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Christo­pher N. Osher

Alice Boat­ner re­turned from run­ning er­rands with her boyfriend to find her cat, To­bias, cow­er­ing in a bed­room while a po­lice of­fi­cer dressed in SWAT clothes and his K-9 searched through her apart­ment.

That war­rant­less — and un­con­sti­tu­tional — search in May, along with dozens of other drug-dog searches at The Suites Sup­port­ive Hous­ing Com­mu­nity in Longmont, prompted a na­tional con­tro­versy, one that the Longmont Hous­ing Au­thor­ity ad­mit­ted in a re­port last week had “co­a­lesced into a Cat­e­gory 5 storm.”

“It was re­ally a vi­o­la­tion of peo­ple’s pri­vacy and their rights,” Boat­ner, 52, said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “That whole sit­u­a­tion was ap­palling and rude and was weird. It left me, and I’m sure a lot of peo­ple, feel­ing not re­ally good at all.

“It makes you feel small.” An al­leged heroin over­dose death of a res­i­dent in April caused the hous­ing au­thor­ity to have Longmont po­lice and their drug dogs par­tic­i­pate dur­ing monthly inspections of apart­ments at The Suites, email records ob­tained un­der Colorado’s open-records laws show. The man­age­ment was con­cerned that two res­i­dents were deal­ing drugs, ac­cord­ing to the emails.

But the searches stoked a re­bel­lion from res­i­dents, who com­plained poverty doesn’t mean they give up rights pro­tect­ing them from un­law­ful searches.

Now the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties

Union of Colorado is pre­par­ing for a law­suit. And the re­sponse from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, who have re­fused to re­lease a Weld County Sher­iff’s Of­fice re­port that con­cluded the war­rant­less searches were not con­sis­tent with Longmont Po­lice Depart­ment stan­dards, has left oth­ers in the com­mu­nity fum­ing and sub­jected the town to na­tional me­dia scorn. An in­ter­nal-af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Longmont Safety Depart­ment, which is in charge of the po­lice depart­ment, is on­go­ing.

“Water­gate comes to mind,” one Longmont res­i­dent said in an email to hous­ing au­thor­ity of­fi­cials as he ex­pressed con­cern about the bum­bling re­sponse by hous­ing au­thor­i­ties, who sought to hold board meet­ings with­out the pub­lic present as the con­tro­versy grew.

The Suites is sup­posed to be refuge for those who are down on their luck. It offers 81 units of sub­si­dized, low-in­come hous­ing for in­di­vid­u­als with an an­nual in­come of less than $33,200 or for a fam­ily of four mak­ing $51,200.

One per­son was filled with grat­i­tude ear­lier this year upon learn­ing the hous­ing au­thor­ity had ap­proved a unit for him­self and Polar Bear, a new cat he had res­cued from a shel­ter, with the help of a friend who paid $42 for the pet’s shots.

“My life has been a harsh one,” he wrote to a com­mu­nity man­ager in one email. “This is very odd to me. Over the past cou­ple days, I’ve no­ticed I have be­come al­most like a street dog wait­ing for who was go­ing to kick me next.”

A Bud­dhist, he wanted to know if his burn­ing of in­cense would vi­o­late the no-smok­ing rule, and whether it would be OK if he went camp­ing for a day or two and left food out for Polar Bear. Such ques­tions seem quaint af­ter the na­tional con­tro­versy over the K-9 searches at the com­plex.

A June let­ter in­form­ing res­i­dents that po­lice and K-9s would be ac­com­pa­ny­ing hous­ing in­spec­tors didn’t in­form res­i­dents they had a con­sti­tu­tional right to re- fuse en­try to po­lice with­out a search war­rant. Records show no ar­rests were made from searches in May and June, although dogs alerted at least twice to pos­si­ble drugs. In one in­stance, a res­i­dent’s pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer was called.

Res­i­dents soon were com­plain­ing, hous­ing au­thor­ity emails show. In a June 5 email, Alma Collins, a man­ager at The Suites, told Krys­tal Erazo, the hous­ing au­thor­ity direc­tor, that ten­ants were up in arms about the K-9s. Com­plaints ranged from in­va­sion of pri­vacy to fears that pet cats could be harmed.

When Erazo emailed back that the law gives res­i­dents the right to refuse en­try by of­fi­cers and K-9s, Collins re­acted with sur­prise. “I was not aware that res­i­dents had to give con­sent for K-9s. That’s good info to pass on and will prob­a­bly help re­duce up­set about it.”

Res­i­dents signed a pe­ti­tion they ti­tled: “No­tice of En­try De­nied to Po­lice with a War­rant,” which cited the Fourth Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion.

The con­flict went pub­lic a day af­ter the pe­ti­tion when Kyle Clark did a re­port on Den­ver’s 9News.

Erazo de­fended the searches to the TV sta­tion. “Usu­ally it helps the res­i­dents feel re­ally se­cure in that we’re fol­low­ing up,” she said. “We’re hold­ing res­i­dents ac­count­able, it’s an op­por­tu­nity for the dogs to train.

“If there is con­cern, it kind of sparks some cu­rios­ity for me. You know, what are they con­cerned about if (the of­fi­cers’) only job is to en­sure there aren’t drugs in the unit?”

The news be­came na­tional af­ter The Washington Post high­lighted the searches in an opin­ion col­umn that stated, “Low-in­come peo­ple are not the equiv­a­lent of tackling dum­mies, or lab rats or vol­un­teers on some po­lice train­ing course. You can’t use poor peo­ple to train your po­lice dogs.”

Po­lice sus­pended their par­tic­i­pa­tion and the use of the dogs, stat­ing there had been no­ti­fi­ca­tion is­sues. But drama has since gripped Longmont, a town of about 100,000 north of Den­ver and about an hour’s drive from Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park.

Com­plaints started rolling into of­fi­cials at the hous­ing au­thor­ity and at city hall. “My jaw is still dropped,” read one email, which added, “Please take a class in why you are an Amer­i­can!!” In an­other email, Collins said she was be­ing pil­lo­ried on so­cial me­dia, in­clud­ing from her friends post­ing on Face­book.

Hous­ing au­thor­ity of­fi­cials sought to buck up the staff, not­ing that at least The Suites had passed its fire alarm test. As ten­sions es­ca­lated, Longmont Coun­cil­woman Polly Christensen, in a lateJune email to a con­cerned res­i­dent, said the dam­age, for a town the size of Longmont, “qual­i­fies as huge.”

“I be­lieve most Amer­i­cans want to live in a town they are proud of,” Christensen wrote. “To be por­trayed as a town where squadrons of po­lice burst into rooms of vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple with snarling dogs look­ing for drugs, as the im­age put forth by these al­le­ga­tions, is un­fair and dam­ag­ing. I have had many friends from in­side AND out­side Longmont ask me what hap­pened.”

The ACLU of Colorado is plan­ning to sue. “Peo­ple don’t have to give up their con­sti­tu­tional rights to live in sub­si­dized hous­ing,” said group le­gal direc­tor Mark Sil­ver­stein.

Au­thor­i­ties now con­cede mis­takes were made. “Once the inspections started on May 10, 2017, law en­force­ment should have rec­og­nized that any re­sis­tance or even ap­par­ent con­sent was not vo­li­tional given the un­even re­la­tion­ship be­tween land­lord and ten­ant,” David Her­rera, the hous­ing au­thor­ity’s lawyer, wrote in a re­port to the hous­ing au­thor­ity board re­leased re­cently.

It’s not a suf­fi­cient apology for Ray Ap­pling, 46, who ended up at The Suites af­ter los­ing her home dur­ing a down­turn in hous­ing val­ues and af­ter be­ing laid off from work.

“I fell to the safety net,” said Ap­pling, who is seek­ing a de­gree in psy­chol­ogy. “Why should that make me a sus­pected crim­i­nal sud­denly? I re­sent be­ing treated like there’s a crack pipe on my counter. As far as I’m con­cerned, they have no right to run a dog shel­ter let alone a hous­ing au­thor­ity when they demon­strate this level of in­com­pe­tence.”

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