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DENVER (AP) A massive raid on a Colorado tax business catering to immigrants was necessary to uncover the crime of identity theft and authorities needed the thousands of confidential documents they seized to build their case, Weld County attorneys said Thursday.

The attorneys are asking the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that stopped an identity theft investigation that prosecutors said could lead to as many as 1,300 suspected illegal immigrants being charged. Prosecutors alleged the tax documents proved that those immigrants were working with false or stolen names and Social Security numbers.

But an attorney for the ACLU, which successfully sued Weld County this year to prevent the district attorney from filing more cases, argued authorities violated people's privacy when they inspected as many as 5,000 confidential tax documents without having the names of specific suspects.

A judge had agreed with the ACLU, ruling that said the search warrant to inspect the tax documents lacked probable cause and violated people's privacy. Three other district judges issued similar rulings in cases that also stemmed from the probe.

"Look, there is no nice way to characterize this search. This is a classic fishing expedition," said Liz Harris, an ACLU attorney.

Whether authorities broke the law with their investigative methods is at the heart of the case. It also illustrates the difficulty of prosecuting identify theft cases, particularly through the use of tax records, which are confidential under federal law.

No one disputes that some of the immigrants were breaking the law by using false identities to work.

Michael J. Rourke, an attorney representing Weld County, said it was impossible for investigators to be more specific in their search warrant request.

"In large part because of the nature of identity theft itself, the investigators didn't know what individuals were falsely using names and Social Security numbers," he said.

Weld County seized the returns last year from a tax preparation firm that catered to Latinos in Greeley, where Hispanics make up about a third of the population.

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More charges were expected, and prosecutors in other states expressed interest in Weld County's use of tax documents to go after illegal immigrants. Immigrant advocacy groups have said the county is the only jurisdiction ever to use tax records which are confidential under federal law to prosecute illegal immigrants.

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate who advocates stricter immigration laws, has maintained the investigation was about identity theft, not illegal immigration.

The probe, known as Operation Numbers Game, began after a Texas man told Greeley authorities that someone there was using his identity. The suspect in that case alerted law enforcement to Amalia's Translation and Tax Services, the firm that prepared his taxes.

Investigators then obtained a search warrant to seize thousands of tax documents from the business. The probe angered immigrant advocacy groups, who said immigrants were being punished simply for doing what the law requires them to do pay taxes.

Filing taxes is mandatory for anyone who earns income in the U.S. regardless of legal status. Many of the people targeted in Weld County's investigation were filing taxes with government-issued taxpayer identification numbers.

When the investigation was stopped in April, the district attorney's office had charged more than 70 people with criminal impersonation and identity theft. Some of those charged face deportation. Others pleaded guilty before the court stopped the investigation.

Pending the appeals, prosecutors also dismissed many cases without prejudice, giving them the option to file charges again if the Supreme Court rules in their favor.

Amalia Cerrillo, the tax business's owner, said her customers have lost faith in her and have stopped coming to her to do their taxes. Cerrillo, who was represented by the ACLU and was never charged with a crime, said she's hoping for a court ruling that will help win back her customer's trust.

"I want justice for them," she said outside the Supreme Court building.


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