Colorado ACLU sues Colorado Springs Police Department and FBI over alleged unlawful privacy invasions of local activist

Colorado Springs police cruiser
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Springs police cruiser.

The ACLU of Colorado has filed a lawsuit against the Colorado Springs Police Department and the FBI stemming from a 2021 protest.

The complaint filed earlier this week alleges detectives and officers violated First and Fourth Amendment Rights while accessing the private information of Jacqueline “Jax” Armendariz Unzueta and leaders of the Chinook Center, a local activist group.

“We want to make sure that the Colorado Springs Police Department is told by a court of law that they can't obtain these types of dragnet search warrants,” said Tim Macdonald, Legal director of ACLU of Colorado. “They can't retaliate against people because of their freedom of speech and their political expression.” 

The Chinook Center led a housing rights march through southeast Colorado Springs July 31, 2021, when the federal moratorium on evictions was lifted. The lawsuit says detectives and undercover officers infiltrated the activist group to gather information with the intent to arrest members of the Chinook Center. 

“They targeted the two leaders. Then they sought these search warrants, and the basis of the search warrant is something that should concern all Coloradans,” Macdonald said. “It was that people use their phones to send messages and take pictures.”

One of those warrants was served to Armendariz Unzueta. She moved to Colorado Springs from El Paso, TX, in 2016. She was working for U.S. Senator Michael Bennet’s office as a regional representative for Pueblo and Southeastern Colorado at the time of the march. Armendariz Unzueta had been a community advocate and organizer in an individual capacity while working with different organizations. She had only worked on one project with the Chinook Center before the march.  

CSPD claimed Armendariz Unzueta obstructed officers while marching in front of the crowd by placing her bicycle in front of them when they were attempting to make arrests.

“I distinctly remember thinking is this another ‘I can't breathe!’ moment?” she said. “Next thing I know, I see a riot cop in full gear charging towards us.”

CSPD, with assistance from the FBI, later arrested Armendariz Unzueta at her home. Her laptop, cell phones, external hard drives and other personal devices were collected. The lawsuit says CSPD obtained unlawful dragnet search warrants to search private Facebook messages of Armendariz Unzueta and Chinook Center members. 

Armendariz Unzueta and other activists were charged with minor crimes but never convicted.

“It's something that anyone who reads this case will see that they were using minor crimes to have these dragnet search warrants that they could basically take an extremely invasive look into our lives simply because of our political beliefs and speech,” Armendariz Unzueta said. 

“No crimes were committed. We never did anything wrong, and there was no criminal activity that we were even suspected of that would've justified these unlawful searches and invasions of our privacy.”

Armendariz Unzueta said the experience has negatively impacted her life. She was placed on administrative leave at Senator Bennet’s office due to the allegations. She eventually left while awaiting trial. Armendariz Unzueta now works in the private sector as a bilingual advocate for a non-profit organization that focuses on the Latino and monolingual Spanish communities and immigrants.

When asked to comment on the matter, CSPD declined to comment on the matter due pending litigation.  

“I think the Chinook Center and Jacqueline Armendariz Unzueta or other clients are saying to the world, ‘We're not gonna be silent. We're gonna keep protesting. We're going to shout from the rooftops that Black Lives matter, that housing is a human right, and that white supremacy shouldn't be tolerated,’” said Macdonald.