When a SWAT team showed up in front of her house in January and demanded over a loudspeaker for anyone in the home to come out with their hands up, Ruby Johnson was watching television in a bathrobe, bonnet and slippers, according to court documents.
The SWAT team and Denver police officers had arrived at Ms. Johnson’s home in an armored vehicle with a German shepherd. Officers, some in tactical gear with rifles, used a battering ram on the rear garage door of Ms. Johnson’s home and also caused damage inside the house, court records say.
Officers searched for stolen goods while Ms. Johnson, 77, waited in a police vehicle. After several hours, the police left. Their search was fruitless.
In a lawsuit filed last week, Ms. Johnson, a retired U.S. Postal Service worker who lives alone, says that a detective, Gary Staab, sought the warrant based on inaccurate information from the Find My app. The mobile application, which helps track down missing or lost Apple products, such as iPhones, iPads and MacBooks, led him to believe that stolen goods were inside her home, the suit says.
Mark Silverstein, a lawyer for Ms. Johnson and the legal director of the A.C.L.U of Colorado, said on Monday that Detective Staab, the sole defendant named in the suit, should not have applied for the warrant.
“The detective did not have the facts needed to justify a search,” Mr. Silverstein said. “His supervisor should have vetoed it. The district attorney should not have greenlighted it. The judge should not have approved it, and the SWAT team should have stayed home.”
The Denver Police Department said in a statement on Monday that it had opened an internal investigation and that it was working with the Denver district attorney’s office to create training for officers about warrants based on applications like Find My.
“The Department of Public Safety and Denver Police Department sincerely apologize to Ms. Johnson for any negative impacts this situation may have had on her,” the department said, adding that it hoped to “resolve the matter” without further litigation.
Detective Staab, who is still with the Police Department, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. It was unclear whether he had a lawyer.
He was assigned on Jan. 4 to investigate a truck that had been reported stolen the day before, according to court documents. The filings state that the owner told the police that inside the truck were four semiautomatic handguns, a tactical military-style rifle, a revolver, two drones, $4,000 in cash and an iPhone 11.
The detective interviewed the truck’s owner, Jeremy McDaniel, who told him that he had used the Find My app the day before to search for the iPhone and that it had placed the lost phone at an address, according to court documents.
Mr. McDaniel, who could not be reached on Monday, also told Detective Staab that he had rented a car to drive by the address but did not see his truck. Mr. McDaniel told the detective that he suspected that his truck could have been in the garage of the home.
The Find My app was created to help Apple product owners find an “approximate location” of a lost item, according to the app’s legal terms. The tool relies on a combination of cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS networks and Bluetooth data to show users an estimate of where the lost item could be.
The approximate location may be specific enough to identify one household or wide enough to include several buildings, if the item cannot be precisely pinpointed. In the app’s reviews, many users have reported success in finding lost items, while others have said that the app was inaccurate.
Apple, the developers of the Find My app, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday about the suit.
The lawsuit included a screenshot of the Find My app linking Mr. McDaniel’s phone to one home, but the radius included parts of other homes and of two streets spread over sections of four blocks.
“The screenshot offered no basis to believe McDaniel’s iPhone was likely to be inside Ms. Johnson’s house, rather than on any of several neighbors’ properties or discarded on a nearby street by a passing driver,” the lawsuit said.
About three hours after interviewing Mr. McDaniel on Jan. 4, Detective Staab obtained a search warrant, and Denver police and SWAT officers soon descended on Ms. Johnson’s lawn.
After the raid, “Ms. Johnson could not bear to remain in her house,” so she lived with her daughter nearby for a week and then stayed at her son’s home in Houston for several months, according to the lawsuit.
Ms. Johnson has since returned to her home, but she is considering moving, as she “experiences anxiety living alone in her home and is afraid to answer the door,” the suit says.