We honor our own freedom most when we use a part of it to labor for the freedom of others.

:: Anthony G. Amsterdam

Public Justice

Public Counsel Conservation projects include:

INS Gets Deported by the
Town of Carbondale
Immigrant Victims of Drivers License Scam

INS Gets Deported by the
Town of Carbondale

In a classic case of government insensitivity, the INS proposed to build a federal detention center (complete with razor wire and 24/7 kleig lights) in the middle of downtown Carbondale. Public Counsel successfully argued that zoning and land use regulations prohibited the detention center, safeguarding the growing Latino community there.

In a classic example of poor planning, the INS in 2000 rented a vacant bank building near downtown Carbondale for a proposed federal detention facility for its Quick Response Team (QRT) serving the Western Slope of Colorado. Hardly an “office”, this conversion of the old Columbia Savings & Loan structure would produce a fortress. Complete with jail cells, an ammo room, terrorist-resistant windows and doors, and 24/7 lighted and razor-wire fenced sallyport, the facility was for the processing and detention of apprehended immigrants before delivery to the main facility in Denver.

Public Counsel was contacted by Latinos Unidos and the Stepstone Center for Social Justice which had staged protests and collected over 1,000 petition signatures, fearing harassment of Latinos — illegal or not — who were a burgeoning part of the Carbondale community. On behalf of these groups as well as neighborhood residential groups, Public Counsel realized that the Town’s land use regulations could block the change in use and retained Aspen attorney Tom Smith, a former Pitkin County attorney and a respected regional expert in land use.

At the public hearing before the Carbondale Board of Adjustment, over 200 local residents appeared, roughly half Latino. The Board was sitting to determine if the issuance of the Building Permit should be rescinded, so as to prohibit the retrofit of the bank to meet INS specifications. Mr. Smith called a series of critical witnesses to demonstrate that the federal agency could not convert the bank building “by right”, beginning with prominent architect Michael Hassig, then on the town’s Planning Commission and now its Mayor. Under the Carbondale land use code, a super-majority of the Board of Adjustment was required to overturn the Chief Building Official’s decision — not just 3, but 4 of the 5 votes.

After hearing 5 hours of testimony, the Board voted 4 to 1 to rescind the building permit and send the INS packing. With Public Counsel’s assistance, an obscure municipal zoning board was empowered to prevent an enormous federal agency from pursuing its plans. Within less than a year, the INS found an appropriate location on an I-70 interchange in Western Colorado.

Public Counsel acknowledges that funding for this project has been generously provided by George Stranahan.

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Immigrant Victims of Drivers
License Scam

It was an employee of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles that was responsible for a scam where more than 150 Latino immigrants paid cash for the “right” to get a driver’s license. The employee was convicted and sent to prison but the names of the victims ended up in the statewide criminal database for having “furnished false information” to the government, a serious offense. Public Counsel worked to secure the State of Colorado’s cooperation to correct these errors which continued to harm the victims.

False Database Entries for Latino Victims

In 2004, Public Counsel was contacted by a bilingual police officer to investigate the horrific, albeit unintended, consequences to 166 innocent victims of a 2002 Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles scam. Following its investigation and prior to engaging a contract attorney, Public Counsel has requested assistance from the Colorado Attorney Generals Office. That request sought to delete inaccurate and injurious misinformation entered in the statewide criminal information database on these immigrant victims of fraudulently issued Colorado drivers licenses.

In 2002, the perpetrator of the scam — a Motor Vehicles employee in the Glenwood Springs Mall — was convicted of bribery as well as computer crime and sentenced to state prison for her role in selling otherwise validly issued drivers licenses for $1,000 cash. Her two co-conspirators worked as “third-party testers”, approaching Latinos in the Mall parking lot. They were convicted of criminal solicitation and also sentenced to state prison.

But when these 166 individuals had their Colorado drivers licenses cancelled, a much more invidious consequence occurred. The computer entry “furnished false information” was placed in their individual data bank files, even though they had furnished valid passports, birth certificates, or other identification documents when they applied for licenses in their true name and with their true address and date of birth.

So each of the recipients of these licenses lost not only their money — and paying cash to get government officials to do their jobs was a familiar requirement in their countries of origin. Unbeknownst to them, each was also labeled a criminal in the statewide data base, for having attempted to procure the license by providing false identification documents. It is this inaccurate data bank entry of fraudulent activity which caused continuing harm, even though there was no factual basis that any false information was ever furnished. Examples of harm include:

  • Continued ineligibility for a Colorado drivers license, even after their immigration status had been adjusted making them eligible to apply in Colorado;
  • Continued ineligibility for a drivers license in other states (e.g., Utah);
  • Excessive charging and punishment when a routine traffic stop results in the discovery that their license has been revoked, i.e., driving under revocation is a far more serious offense than driving without a license; and
  • Continuing adverse consequences on applications for adjustment in their immigration status, despite eligibility for green cards, visas or other documents.

Public Counsel acknowledges that funding for this project has been generously provided by hundreds of Roaring Fork Valley citizens and contributors.

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© Thomas O'Brian

© Gino Hollander

© Burnie Arendt