Spanish-speaking residents learn laws

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A group of about 20 Spanish-speaking residents met Tuesday night at Soda Creek Elementary School to learn their legal rights when confronted by police officers, and to express concerns about recent run-ins with the law.

Comunidad Integrada, a nonprofit group that assists the Spanish-speaking community, hosted the meeting.

Comunidad Integrada director Summer Laws said the meeting was prompted by concerns some Spanish-speaking residents began bringing to her attention several months ago.

"I received a lot of calls in a short period of time from residents feeling like they were being targeted by the Colorado State Patrol and other agencies," she said.

"The community was really interested in knowing what they should or shouldn't say when they do get pulled over."

Laws said some told her their friends had been pulled over for traffic violations such as having low tire pressure, and, consequently, they had been deported to Mexico. Others said they had similar experiences.

Public Defender Emily Wickham told people at the meeting they had the same rights when stopped as any other person, regardless of immigration status, which is always a concern to illegal immigrants.

"Many people don't know that they do have rights when they are pulled over," she said. "It doesn't matter what your immigration status is, you have the same rights as I do."

Wickham said Spanish-speaking residents could refuse to answer police questions and refuse to take roadside tests, including some Breathalyzer tests.

Spanish-speaking residents have more rights in a criminal court than in an immigration court, she said.

Several in the group said they worried police would take their Mexican identification cards and alert immigration officials.

Laws told the group that she met with law enforcement officers from the Moffat County Sheriff's Office, the Craig and Steamboat Springs police departments and the Colorado State Patrol a few months ago to discuss such issues.

Laws said the officers told her they did not target Latinos and could not speak about specific cases in which drivers were referred to immigration authorities.

Wickham said that most often, people are deported when immigration authorities learn about their status through criminal cases such as traffic violations.

Maj. Jim Wolfinbarger, of the State Patrol's Denver headquarters, said officers operate on a policy that no traffic stop is based solely on race, gender, creed or nation of origin.

"There is often a misconception that there is some nexus that exists between the Colorado State Patrol and the federal government where we contact immigration and get them deported," he said.

"We have nothing to do with that. We don't have any jurisdiction from an immigration or naturalization standpoint."

Wolfinbarger said it is important for all communities to know that the State Patrol is receptive to complaints or concerns from residents and takes them seriously no matter who makes them.

"It is important for us to listen because it is such an important component of being part of the community," he said. "We are a part of the community. We are very cognizant of that. We want to expand our communication."

Laws said she has never accused any agency of being racist or of racial profiling, just that she had received numerous complaints from residents feeling as if they were being treated unfairly.

A similar meeting that State Patrol officers attended took place recently in Durango, where area residents accused officers of profiling.

Laws said the State Patrol was facing a class-action lawsuit in Summit County brought on by members of the Spanish-speaking community, who say they were unfairly treated during traffic stops.

"In order for these types of forums to be fully productive, we really feel like everyone involved, including the CSP, needs to be there talking," Wolfinbarger said.

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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