For most people, a traffic citation is an unfortunate but minor occurrence. But for Alex Lupa, a small infraction led to big problems, including a night spent in jail at the very moment his right to legally stay in this country was hanging in the balance.
Lupa isn't an American citizen. Rather, he's a permanent resident who was going through the naturalization process last month when he ran the stop sign above in Arapahoe County. Afterward, he was arrested and placed in the Arapahoe County Detention Center until the wee hours of the next morning on an improperly filed warrant from nine years earlier. To add insult to injury, he says, an officer on the scene wanted to impound the borrowed vehicle he'd been driving even though the owner was there at the time.
In the end, the car wasn't impounded. But Lupa still has a court date next week over the ticket, and he's frustrated that no discipline is in the offing for any of the law enforcers involved in the series of events that led to his being taken into custody. And that's not to mention the tenuousness of his status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"With everything going on with immigration right now," Lupa notes, "the recent arrest was particularly stressful. I had to leave jail and then go to my interview for USCIS, and I was paranoid I wouldn't walk out. What should have been a routine approval of my application is now in question, though it's not related to my arrest. They said they need more time to review my application, and there's a good chance they'll reject it. Then, who knows? I could be deported."
The holdup is likely related to Lupa's arrest back in 2007 for driving while alcohol-impaired. In fact, he had been threatened with deportation at the time because he didn't have his green card on him. But he was allowed to stay in the U.S. anyhow, and over the next two years, he says, "I did everything I could to satisfy the requirements of the case, and it was closed in 2009." But because of a mix-up over documentation proving that he had attended required alcohol classes, a warrant was mistakenly issued, and unbeknownst to Lupa, it's been lingering in the system ever since.
Nine years later, on July 10, "I was driving home in the vehicle my stepfather lets me use," he recalls. "I was going through an intersection that had never had a stop sign before, but they just put one up and I ran it — I admit that — and an officer pulled me over."
The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office deputy was soon joined by a colleague, and the delay in the process concerned Lupa enough that he texted his stepfather, who lives nearby and arrived at the intersection within minutes.
Meanwhile, a check of Lupa's particulars turned up the warrant, at which point "they arrested me and told me, 'We're going to impound the vehicle.'" Fortunately, Lupa's stepfather is an attorney, "and he said, 'You don't have the right to do that. I'm the owner, and I can drive the vehicle away.' The officer went back to his car, and after a while, he came back and said, 'Okay, you can take the vehicle,' and then they took me to jail."
It was the early evening at that point, and Lupa was finally released around three or four a.m. the following morning, he estimates. He was subsequently given a notice to appear at what turned out to be the wrong court location, but he managed to figure it out in time, and eventually authorities realized that the warrant on which he was arrested should never have been issued in the first place.
Afterward, Lupa began issuing complaints about the deputy for threatening to impound the vehicle — and for turning off his body camera prior to his interactions with his stepfather. But Julie Brooks, public affairs manager for the ACSO, confirms that no punishment is forthcoming. "A preliminary investigation was conducted, but we found no policy violations on the part of any deputies involved," she says.
According to Brooks, "We didn't enter the warrant against Mr. Lupa. There was an active CICJIS [Colorado Integrated Criminal Justice Information System] warrant on him. And that's why the arrest happened. He says he was falsely arrested, but that's not true. We arrested him based on an active warrant — and we had no idea that the warrant should have been canceled."
Regarding the issue of threatening to impound the car, she points out that "if a vehicle is on the street and can't be parked or locked, we can tow the vehicle. But because the owner showed up, we released it to him — and we have no complaint from the owner." Moreover, she stresses that the ACSO's body-camera procedures allow deputies to switch off the camera "while doing paperwork or working with the registered owner. The cameras have to be on during the arrest, but not during every contact with any member of the public. We just don't have the space to store hours of that."
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These answers don't satisfy Lupa. "I'm more determined than ever to seek accountability about this," he says. "These are the same people who held me accountable for my mistake, and I paid my debt. I figure they should be held accountable, too."
Right now, Lupa is scheduled to appear in court for the traffic ticket on August 21, and he's hopeful that after the judge learns about what happened to him as a result, the whole matter will be dropped. But even if that happens, he remains in immigration limbo.
"People tend to think, 'Well, this was a bad person or a criminal anyway,'" he says regarding the prospect of his deportation. "But I don't commit crimes in my life at all. I don't use illegal drugs. I file my taxes every year, and I try to be mindful, courteous and respectful of others. I work full-time, I have my own apartment. I'm a productive member of society. You can see it took nine years for me to get so much as a traffic ticket."
And look what happened when he did.