ACLU Sues North Metro Drug Task Force
AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION OF COLORADO
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 12, 2004
The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Colorado (ACLU) announced today that it had filed suit Friday against the North Metro Drug Task Force on behalf of a metro-area woman. The suit alleges that Task Force made her strip naked in the parking lot of her condominium in full view of her neighbors and male law enforcement officers and forced her to submit to an unjustified, humiliating, and degrading "decontamination" ritual that had no legitimate purpose whatsoever.
"This case presents one more example of how the War on Drugs has become a war on the Constitution and basic human rights," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director.
According to the lawsuit, the Plaintiff was sitting in her second-floor bedroom doing homework for her art class when officers of the Northglenn/Thornton SWAT team and the task force suddenly broke down her door and burst into her home. They held her at gunpoint, handcuffed her, and then executed a warrant to search her premises for a purported methamphetamine laboratory that was never found and had never existed.
Besides failing to find the nonexistent drug lab, the lawsuit says, the search team also found no evidence whatsoever of any the hazardous chemicals or dangerous volatile fumes associated with clandestine methamphetamine production. They did find a [small] personal-use quantity of drugs, and the Plaintiff was arrested for possession.
"Because of the possibility of toxic and volatile chemicals, suspected meth labs are often treated as hazardous material sites," Silverstein said. "Before taking drug lab suspects into custody, law enforcement officers routinely force them to strip naked and submit to a 'decontamination' procedure, often without adequate respect for their privacy or basic human dignity. But in this case, the search team had already determined that there was no meth lab and no dangerous fumes. There was no legitimate law enforcement or public safety purpose that could possibly justify subjecting our client to this emotionally painful, embarrassing, degrading, and pointless ritual."
According to the lawsuit, the Defendants filled a small plastic children's wading pool with cold water. They surrounded it with a spotty makeshift "enclosure" composed of cloth tarps that contained significant visual gaps, which grew larger as the tarps blew in the wind. The inside of the "enclosure" was visible not only to numerous male officers standing in the parking lot but also from the second-floor windows of the other residences in the housing complex.
The ACLU says its client was forced to stand naked in the pool; directed to apply the cold water to her body, and then forced [to] dunk her head and hair in the water. At least two male firefighters standing inside the small "enclosure" monitored the entire process while holding a hose and a brush. A third male law enforcement officer, watching through a gap in the tarps, issued orders directing each separate step of the "decontamination" ritual. Numerous additional male officers stood in the parking lot nearby where they could observe the Plaintiff naked as she shook and shivered from cold, fear, and humiliation.
"Our client acknowledges that she has had a problem with substance abuse," Silverstein said. "She pled guilty to possession, is in Community Corrections, and she continues to receive counseling and treatment. But she did not manufacture drugs, and she never had a meth lab in her house. The mere possession of a small quantity of illegal drugs provides no justification for subjecting her to this degrading 'decontamination' at all, let alone with such blatant disregard for her privacy and her basic human dignity."
The lawsuit alleges that the SWAT team violated the Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights by forcibly breaking her windows and door and carrying out the search as "no-knock" raid without legal justification. The lawsuit contends that the Defendants also violated the Fourth Amendment by inviting a private videographer with no law enforcement function to accompany them into Plaintiff’s home and film the events.
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for violations of the Plaintiff’s right of privacy, right of bodily integrity, and her right to be free of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
In addition to the North Metro Drug Task Force, defendants named in the suit include the cities of Northglenn and Thornton; Lori Moriarty, Commander of the Task Force; Northglenn firefighters in charge of the "decontamination" process; and the on-site commander of the SWAT team. The suit was filed in federal district court in Denver. Attorneys with the law firm of Perkins Coie are handling the representation as ACLU cooperating attorneys.