Austin Police Department accused of unlawful ‘raid’ at immigrant worker nonprofit

Austin

Complaint: APD 'needlessly traumatized' nonprofit staff, didn't properly serve subpoena to obtain evidence

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Workers Defense Project filed a complaint against the Austin Police Department after it said APD officers unlawfully “raided” its office Nov. 10 to collect evidence related to an alleged assault in its parking lot.

The 11-page complaint, filed with the city’s Office of Police Oversight, alleges APD executed a search warrant that was “obtained under false pretense that led to an egregious raid of WDP’s Austin offices.” WDP claims a subpoena for two hours and five minutes of its security footage was “improperly served,” so it did not respond to it. It says APD then went to a judge to get a search warrant signed before five armed officers came to the building to “seize an unknown number of days of confidential footage.”

In a statement Wednesday, APD said it’s aware of a complaint alleging officer misconduct that was filed by WDP.

“From the onset of the investigation, attempts were made to work with WDP employees to get vital evidence of the attack from their surveillance camera system. All requests were denied by employees of the WDP,” APD said. APD said the search warrant was legal and “was reviewed and approved by an independent magistrate,” and “authorized APD personnel to obtain the recording device that is believed to contain the evidence.”

KXAN received a copy of the search warrant, which asked officers to seize “any film images, digital images, photographs, slides, negatives, film and/or undeveloped film, videotape and any reproductions of any of these, and the security camera recording device” that show “any illegal activity or events” related to the officers’ investigation.

What evidence did APD want?

The footage APD wanted was of WDP’s parking lot, where an alleged assault occurred. According to an arrest warrant, on Oct. 14, a woman was accused of threatening two food truck workers with a knife. That woman was later arrested and faces two aggravated assault charges.

The suspect’s arrest warrant says a staff member of WDP “allowed (the officer) to watch their security video in the parking lot.” It went on to say while the assault was “hidden behind the food truck,” they saw the suspect walking away with what appeared to be a knife.

WDP is concerned the footage officers took could also contain images of its clients, which should be protected under attorney-client privilege.

“As an organization staff attorney, I represent low-waged workers whose rights have been violated,” said Hannah Alexander, Workers Defense Project’s staff attorney. “Because of this incident, I am very concerned that people who need our services in order to vindicate their rights will not seek them.”

Subpoena vs. search warrant

The only way WDP staff knew what was in the subpoena was after a staff member requested a copy of it from the detective, it said. The staff member said in the email request they are not authorized to accept a subpoena but stated “we would like a copy to review,” the complaint says.

KXAN’s Kaitlyn Karmout asked WDP during a Wednesday press conference why the staff member who received the subpoena couldn’t have forwarded the document to the proper channel once it was received.

“Of course she can forward an email to the executive director. Let me give you my IBM example … If a crime happens on the Apple campus, and the police want the evidence, then they have to go through the legal department,” said Rebecca Webber. “They go through the proper steps. They don’t send a poorly-written email, full of mistakes, to the HR and press staff.”

“Austin Police either do not know or do not care how to properly serve a subpoena,” the complaint reads. “Texas Code of Criminal Procedure 24.04(a) states that a subpoena can be hand-delivered, read aloud, emailed with a return acknowledgment, or mailed certified mail.”

The complaint says APD didn’t do any of those things in order to serve the subpoena, which APD disputes.

When APD went to the WDP offices Nov. 10, the day a judge signed a search warrant, the complaint says officers “broke open the door of a closed-for-renovation nonprofit office and seized the nonprofit’s entire security footage recording apparatus, including weeks of confidential video recordings, instead of simply emailing a subpoena for the relevant two hours and five minutes of footage to the organization’s Executive Director.”

APD said it forced entry into the building because “WDP employees again refused to voluntarily comply.”

“Had Austin Police served the subpoena on Oct. 22, organization attorneys would have pulled the footage, reviewed it for attorney-client privilege, and turned over the responsive information to Austin Police by Nov. 1, 2021,” WDP’s complaint said.

It goes on to say the officers involved “needlessly traumatized and detained two of the nonprofit’s
administrative employees who were packing boxes and removing wall fixtures inside the closed offices when armed officers broke into the building.”

APD says the Office of Police Oversight will conduct an internal review.

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