Court rules against Colo. DA in search of tax files

DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that authorities violated the constitutional and privacy rights of suspected illegal immigrants by using tax returns to try to build hundreds of identity theft cases against them.

The 4-3 ruling affirmed a decision by a Weld County district judge who suppressed evidence against one of the defendants. In that case, investigators raided a tax business that catered to Latinos in Greeley, which has a heavily Hispanic population.

The investigation, dubbed "Operation Numbers Game," marked the first and only time in the U.S. that authorities used tax returns, which are confidential under federal law, to prosecute suspected illegal immigrants.

With Monday's ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with a district court judge who said authorities had gone on an "exploratory search" and had no probable cause to search the man's tax returns.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate. "We have a serious identity theft problem in Weld County, we are trying to address it, and this is a setback."

Buck said he would not appeal to a federal court.

Kevin Strobel, head of the Greeley Public Defender's Office, said Monday's ruling shows that despite the heated political debate about illegal immigration, "there's still a constitutional framework for how authorities deal with that population and whether they've committed crimes or not."

"They gotta play by the rules," he said.