On October 7, 2008, as reported by the New York Times, “the Weld County, CO, Sheriff’s Office, armed with a search warrant, seized thousands of confidential tax returns from Ms. Cerrillo’s business. They told her they were looking for people with fraudulent Social Security numbers, commonly used by illegal immigrants to get work.”
This raid set off a legal fight over creative enforcement of immigration laws by state and local police. Under the so-called 287G program, the Department of Homeland Security contracts with non-federal agencies to enforce immigration laws. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s head of DHS, has launched a review of the program.
Below is a March 11 article by the Times on an ACLU suit in a state court to prevent the tax returns from being used by law enforcement. Following that is the original Times article from February 9.
Amalia’s tax service Judge Puts Halt to ID Theft Inquiry Focusing on Immigrants
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By DAN FROSCH
Published: March 11, 2009
DENVER — An identify theft investigation in northern Colorado that has implicated more than 1,000 people suspected of being illegal immigrants has now been halted by a judge until he decides whether tactics used by the authorities were legal.
The judge, James H. Hiatt of State District Court, ordered Weld County officials on Tuesday to hand over documents seized during a search of a tax preparer’s office last October. Sheriff’s investigators and the local district attorney have been using the tax documents as the basis for arrests on charges involving fraudulent Social Security numbers, commonly presented by illegal immigrants to get work.
Judge Hiatt’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado against Weld County’s district attorney, Kenneth R. Buck, and its sheriff, John Cooke, who together undertook the investigation.
The civil liberties union claims that the authorities violated the privacy rights of thousands of taxpayers when they seized the documents from the tax preparer, Amalia’s Translation and Tax Services, in Greeley.
Judge Hiatt is to decide next month whether the authorities acted legally. In the meantime, the ruling Tuesday “is certainly a sign that the judge understood our arguments regarding the right to privacy and the potential harm that flows from this massive and illegal fishing expedition,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the A.C.L.U. of Colorado.
Jennifer Finch, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the judge’s temporary halt to the inquiry had been expected. “This case has brought up a variety of issues that need to be sorted out and decided on,” Ms. Finch said.
The investigation has inspired a debate over whether local authorities can use personal tax information to pursue suspects on identify theft charges. The government requires residents of the United States, legal or not, to pay taxes on income earned here, and many illegal immigrants do so because they hope it will lead to legal status.
The inquiry has so far led to the arrest of 62 people on identify theft or criminal impersonation charges, and warrants have been issued for the arrest of 59 others. Those cases, already in the justice pipeline, are not affected by Tuesday’s order, but the authorities are barred from any more arrests until Judge Hiatt rules next month.
On Monday, another state district judge, James Hartmann, presiding over a separate case involving the search of the tax preparer’s office, ruled that local law enforcement officers had not had sufficient probable cause for it. Ms. Finch said the district attorney’s office would appeal that decision.
Original article Feb 9 2009
GREELEY, Colo. — For the past decade, thousands of Hispanic men and women who settled here went to Amalia’s Translation and Tax Services to pay their annual income taxes.
“They are committing felonies through identify theft,” District Attorney Ken Buck said.
Whether these people were in the United States legally mattered little to Amalia Cerrillo, who runs the business out of her home in this northern Colorado farming town. The Internal Revenue Service, Ms. Cerrillo knew, requires everyone, regardless of immigration status, to pay taxes on income earned in this country.
“My clients wanted to do what any other American does,” Ms. Cerrillo said. “And they wanted to show that they paid their taxes if there is ever a chance for amnesty or a green card.”
That all changed Oct. 17, when investigators with the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, armed with a search warrant, seized thousands of confidential tax returns from Ms. Cerrillo’s business. They told her they were looking for people with fraudulent Social Security numbers, commonly used by illegal immigrants to get work.
The seizure of the tax returns was the first step in a broad, continuing investigation, called Operation Number Games by local law enforcement officials. Sheriff John Cooke said his investigators had identified about 1,300 illegal immigrants who had filed tax returns bearing fake or stolen Social Security numbers. Many will face deportation proceedings.
Since October, 40 people have been arrested on identity theft or criminal impersonation charges. Sixty-five additional arrest warrants have been issued, and District Attorney Ken Buck said many more would be coming.
“I don’t care whether they are meth addicts or petty thieves or illegal immigrants,” Mr. Buck said. “What matters most to me is that they are committing felonies through identify theft.”
The campaign is causing concern at the I.R.S., which says illegal immigrants paid almost $50 billion in taxes from 1996 to 2003, and among immigrants’ rights groups, which call the operation a thinly disguised attempt to root out illegal immigrants.
“For years, they said immigrants don’t pay taxes and are a burden on our system,” said Julie Gonzales, the political coordinator for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
Late last Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a lawsuit in State District Court here arguing that by seizing and retaining confidential tax information, the Weld County authorities had violated privacy rights of thousands of taxpayers.
“If the sheriff and the D.A. can comb through thousands of records in a tax preparer’s office on the theory that some of their clients are doing something wrong, then none of our confidential information is safe,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the group.
Mr. Buck said all information from the investigation would be kept confidential.
Both sides agree that the issue has exposed a hole in federal immigration policy. Since 1996, the I.R.S. has distributed about 15 million Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers to enable people without Social Security numbers to pay taxes. Many illegal immigrants also buy fake or stolen Social Security numbers on the black market to show to potential employers.
While not commenting specifically about the Colorado operation, an I.R.S. spokesman, Frank Keith, said, “We are concerned when information provided by taxpayers to meet their legal tax obligations is used for purposes other than federal tax administration.”
Sheriff Cooke said the federal policy was tantamount to “the government turning its back on victims of identity theft.”
If a stolen or false Social Security number is used only to get work, “there is no negative impact on the rightful owner,” said a Social Security Administration spokesman, Mark Hinkle; but it can wreak financial havoc if used to gain access to bank accounts or to obtain credit cards.
Sheriff Cooke said the Greeley investigation began last August when a Texas man contacted the authorities here and said he had been notified by the Social Security Administration that someone was using his Social Security number in Weld County.
Investigators traced the number to Servando Trejo, who according to a search warrant told them he was in the United States illegally and had bought the number. Mr. Trejo said he paid income taxes through Ms. Cerrillo’s office, the warrant said.
Ms. Cerrillo is not facing charges.
Sheriff Cooke blames the I.R.S. “They know the Social Security numbers are stolen,” he said, “and they choose to ignore it.”
Some illegal immigrants hope that the payment of taxes in compliance with federal laws will benefit them if and when Congress addresses the immigration issue. But Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, said the crackdown had put illegal immigrants in a bind: if they pay their taxes, they risk exposure to immigration authorities.
“It cuts at the bedrock of confidentiality of tax law, whose central tenet is that people come forward and report their income,” Ms. Hincapié said.
The investigation has had a chilling impact on immigrants in Greeley, advocates say. A man who asked to be identified only as Jose because he is in the country illegally said he had filed taxes with the dream of one day becoming a citizen.
Jose said that he was arrested late last year for using a false Social Security number he bought in Denver and that he now faces prison and deportation.
“You try and do the right thing,” Jose said of paying taxes, “and it seems they’re using it as an excuse to take people out of the country.”
Mr. Buck, though, said the cases stemming from the inquiry are about identity theft, not immigration. District attorneys in the Southwest, he said, have called to ask about his tactics.
“Am I apologetic for spreading fear amongst people committing felonies?” Mr. Buck said. “No.”