Lawsuit filed over ICE arrest at Strawberry Days
September 17, 2011
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A lawsuit has been filed in federal court on behalf of the family of one of the men arrested and detained on immigration charges during what law enforcement officials said was a “gang enforcement operation” during Strawberry Days weekend in Glenwood Springs this summer.
The lawsuit was filed Sept. 1 in U.S. District Court by Glenwood Springs attorney Ted Hess for plaintiffs Julio Alvarez-Cortez, his wife Lorenza Morales-Alvarez, an adult son, Emmanuel Ruiz, and two minor children.
Named as defendants in the case are Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents Steve Turza and Chris Carter, three Garfield County sheriff’s deputies and a Carbondale police officer.
The lawsuit alleges that the joint law enforcement operation set up at the Strawberry Days carnival in the Glenwood Springs Mall parking lot the weekend of June 18 was unconstitutional and amounted to an “unlawful immigration sweep for Latino men.”
It claims the “sweep” violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and ICE’s own regulations.
Alvarez-Cortez was one of three men detained and ultimately arrested for immigration violations and other charges June 18 after they were contacted for allegedly displaying gang colors. They were also questioned about their immigration status.
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Also detained as part of the operation were Alvarez-Cortez’s brother, Cesar Alvarez-Cortez, and David Centeno.
Sheriff Vallario said at the time that the men were contacted as part of local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE’s Operation Community Shield Gang Task Force.
“The mission is to identify gang members and prosecute them either locally or federally,” Vallario said at the time.
However, the lawsuit says the federal and local agents overstepped their bounds and carried out an unjustified and potentially dangerous operation in a crowded setting. That violated an ICE directive not to conduct such operations in sensitive locations where families and children are likely to be present, according to the lawsuit.
“There is not significant Latino gang activity in Garfield County … and no history of significant gang activity at past Strawberry Days festivals,” the lawsuit claims.
Both Julio and Cesar Alvarez-Cortez were wearing sports jerseys and caps when they were questioned by police officers. The men were asked to accompany the officers to an ICE command trailer that had been set up at the carnival grounds for further questioning, purportedly about a fight that had occurred the night before.
Once at the command trailer, no questions were asked about the fight, the lawsuit claims, but the brothers were detained on charges of being in the United States illegally.
During the incident, Lorenza Alvarez, who was seven months pregnant at the time, tried to intercede but began experiencing medical problems and had to be taken to the hospital. Her husband, Julio Alvarez-Cortez, remains in the custody of ICE pending immigration proceedings.
The lawsuit acknowledges that ICE can legally approach suspected gang members and attempt to gain immigration-related information with the person’s consent.
However, “ICE agents have no authority to deputize local law enforcement officers to encounter and detain suspected gang members and turn them over to ICE,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit requests a jury trial to determine compensation for damages related to wrongful seizure, profiling and discrimination based on national origin and violation of constitutional rights, among other claims.
On Friday, Vallario said he had not yet been made aware of the lawsuit and said a comment would be premature.
Carl Rusnok, ICE director of communications, Central Region, also declined comment on the lawsuit specifically. Following the June arrests, Rusnok said the operation was carried out in a discrete manner and did not cause undue disruption of the festival.
The operation was also highly criticized by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, which also said it violated ICE procedures.