A Woodbury police officer and the city have been named in a federal lawsuit that claims the officer entered a home in Oakdale without a search warrant, said he was investigating the resident for hacking into e-mail, then confiscated the computer.
The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, claims officer Jeff Gottstein violated the civil rights of Lestter Cruz and his sister-in-law Darlene Zemke by conducting the search in their home without the required warrant and illegally seized the computer. It also accuses Gottstein of civil theft by taking the computer and not returning it. The city is named as a co-defendant because Gottstein was acting in his official capacity as a Woodbury police officer.
According to the suit, Cruz was at the home he shared with his brother and his brother’s spouse, Zemke, on Nov. 20 in the 6500 block of Seventh Street N.
Gottstein arrived with another unnamed Woodbury police officer, and Cruz let them both inside. Gottstein said he was there on official business, investigating a charge that Cruz had been hacking into e-mails. Gottstein asked if he could look around, but Cruz did not consent to the search. Gottstein ordered Cruz to stay seated on a couch, then proceeded to search the home while the second officer watched over Cruz, the suit says.
When he located a computer in another room, the suit says, Gottstein called Cruz in, telling him several times: “If you tell me [you] were hacking e-mails, then I will leave.” When Cruz denied he was hacking e-mails, he told Cruz he would have to take the computer. Cruz called his lawyer.
Gottstein demanded the computer passwords as well, the suit claims, but Cruz refused to reveal them. Cruz used the computer in his work, and efforts to have it returned have not been successful, the suit says. Zemke was not home at the time, but the computer belongs to her, making her a party in the suit.
“It’s a case about the sanctity of somebody’s home, and whether a police officer believes he or she is above the law,” said Cruz’s attorney, A.L. Brown, adding there may have been personal motives behind the officer’s actions. Cruz, he said, is a medical student from Mexico.
“He’s completely shaken by this, an American police officer walking into a house and just taking a computer,” Brown said. The suit does not specify a monetary amount of damages being sought, but asks for a jury trial.
Efforts to reach Gottstein and the city attorney Friday were not successful.
In addition to being a police officer, Gottstein also is president and founder of a technology company, Law Enforcement Technology Group, that employs more than two dozen people and develops software used by dozens of police agencies across Minnesota.