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Pushed Through the Shredder

Pueblo men imprisoned in El Paso County illegally and without charges, lawsuit alleges


The Unis family
  • The Unis family

Daniel Unis says he doesn't know why his two sons, David and Marcos, spent two nights in the El Paso County Jail a little more than one and a half years ago.

In fact, though he had witnessed their arrest at the Unis family home in Pueblo during a SWAT-style raid by gun-toting federal law-enforcement agents, Daniel says he didn't even know where his sons had been taken, until after they had been released.

El Paso County Jail officials, meanwhile, say they don't know why the brothers were brought to their Criminal Justice Center facility -- 40 miles from Pueblo -- either. And state and federal law-enforcement agencies that were targeted in a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado on behalf of the Unis family are refusing to discuss the case.

According to the lawsuit, the Unis brothers' trip to jail began when several agents, without warning, burst into the family's home on Aug. 19, 2000, just as the family had finished eating dinner. Carrying automatic weapons, the black-masked, black-helmeted men kicked the family's dog across the floor, ordered the Unises to "get on the fucking floor," and held them at gunpoint while searching the house, the lawsuit alleges.

"They were just suddenly there," Daniel Unis recalled in an interview this week. "Weapons were pointed at us ... safeties off and finger on the trigger."

While they found no contraband, the agents hauled David Unis, then 19, and Marcos Unis, then 22, off to jail. Their father spent the next two days calling various law-enforcement agencies trying, without success, to find out where his sons had been taken. His sons never called him from jail.

"From what I understand," he says, "they weren't able to."

No lawful authority

As it turned out, the two young men had been taken to the El Paso County Jail. They were held there until Aug. 21, 2000, when they were released -- without charges, explanation or apology, according to the lawsuit.

To this day, Daniel Unis, a Pueblo County social worker, says he has no idea why his home was raided. He said his sons -- who are not speaking to the media at the recommendation of their attorney -- were not engaged in illegal activities to his knowledge. Both were in college at the time and still are.

"They study most of the time," Daniel said.

According to the ACLU, the raid was carried out by the Southern Colorado Drug Task Force, composed of officers from the Pueblo Police Department, the Pueblo County Sheriff's Department, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The lawsuit charges that agents Pat Crouch of the CBI and David Saunders of the DEA, as well as three other unidentified officers, violated the Unises' constitutional protections against unreasonable search and arrest. El Paso County is not named in the complaint.

"These government agents had no search warrant, no arrest warrant, and no lawful authority whatsoever," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. "They carried out this armed home invasion in flagrant disregard of the Fourth Amendment."

No one knows

No one who will comment on the case can give a clear answer as to why the Unis brothers were taken to the El Paso County Jail as opposed to the Pueblo County Jail. Speaking in general terms, representatives for the federal agencies involved suggested it could be because the jail is closer to the federal courts in Denver.

Officials at the El Paso County Jail say they have no idea why the Unis brothers were in their custody, besides the fact that federal agents requested it.

According to the standards of the American Correctional Association, to which the El Paso County Jail belongs, jails should always verify that an inmate "is legally committed to the facility" before the person is booked. In reality, however, the jail doesn't require a federal officer who's dropping off an inmate to actually state why the person is being imprisoned. Jim Grayson, commander of the Sheriff Office's detention operations division, said the agents are only required to file a document called a "detainer," which doesn't state the reason for arrest.

"All it says is that, 'You are holding this person based on my authority,'" Grayson said. "It doesn't even say what it's for. ... That document is very generic."

Moreover, the jail doesn't even keep detainers on file. The Independent requested copies of the Unis brothers' detainers from the jail but was told the documents had been shredded. Grayson said the jail doesn't keep copies of the papers because the responsibility to document that a person was lawfully arrested falls on the agency that's filing charges, in this case, the federal agents.

"It's not within our scope to go and scrutinize the legitimacy of an arrest," he said.

All that's required

Grayson said he was certain, however, that detainers had to have been filed in the Unis case. "I'm confident that a detainer existed, otherwise they would never have gotten in this jail." The sheriff's commander said he wasn't concerned that destroying documents might make the jail vulnerable to liability in an illegal-detention lawsuit, because the jail keeps all the records that it's required to keep under state law.

Silverstein said he understands that a jail can't do an independent investigation of the circumstances leading to a person being booked. "[But], the correctional standards say that the jail needs to satisfy itself that the detention is legal," he said.

Daniel Unis, meanwhile, says his main concern, and the reason for filing the lawsuit, is to make sure others aren't subjected to similar raids.

"I'd really like to see it stop," he said.

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