Judge halts Colorado ID-theft investigation
GREELEY, Colorado ” A judge has halted an identity theft investigation targeting illegal immigrants in Colorado, saying prosecutors wrongly seized federal income tax records to pursue suspects.
The judge on Monday ordered Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and the Weld County Sheriff’s Department to return or destroy the evidence within seven days.
Buck will appeal the ruling, said his attorney, Lisa Hogan.
Buck and sheriff’s investigators allege that up to 1,300 immigrants were filing tax returns using false or stolen identities. They launched an investigation dubbed “Operation Numbers Game” last year after a Texas man alerted Weld County authorities that someone was using his identity.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to stop the investigation, contending the seizure of thousands of documents from Amalia’s Translation and Tax Services in Greeley was illegal.
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The ACLU contends the records are confidential under federal law. Weld County authorities say the records were never in possession of the IRS and are therefore not confidential.
Weld County District Judge James Hiatt ruled the seizure was over-broad and violated the privacy rights of the people whose tax records were taken. He issued a temporary injunction halting the investigation.
Charges had already been filed against at least 60 people, and some defendants pleaded guilty to identity theft and criminal impersonation. Hiatt said he couldn’t overturn those case but expected at least some of the defendants to seek to withdraw their pleas.
Immigrant advocates say the people charged were being punished for doing what the law requires them to do ” pay taxes.
Everyone who earns income in the U.S. is required to pay taxes regardless of legal status. To streamline the process for those who don’t have Social Security numbers, people can get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, from the Internal Revenue Service.
Immigration attorneys say that’s what the people arrested in Weld County were doing to file their taxes.
Buck argues the defendants were violating U.S. law by being in the country illegally in the first place.