Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, allowed racial profiling and arbitrary stops of Latinos as part of a crackdown on illegal immigrants, a federal court judge was told.
Stanley Young, a lawyer for five individuals who sued Arpaio, said yesterday in his opening statement at Phoenix trial that he would prove how the crackdown resulted in the “denigration of Hispanics.”
“It is our view the problem starts from the top,” Young told U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow, who will decide the case without a jury. “We hope the court will compel the MCSO to honor the Constitution and put into practice procedures used by other law enforcement agencies to prevent racial discrimination.”
Snow will hear evidence that Arpaio’s so-called saturation patrols, which started in 2007 and have included hundreds of volunteer posse members, used pretextual traffic stops to arrest Latinos who they suspected were illegal immigrants and who weren’t suspected of having committed a crime.
Timothy Casey, a lawyer for the sheriff’s office, said in his opening statement that, “evidence shows that race and ethnicity had nothing to do with traffic stops.”
“Arpaio does not select sites for saturation patrols and has never suggested a site based on a citizen letter,” Casey said. The patrols were planned “based upon an area’s crime history -- ethnicity of the constituency played no role.”
The class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of all Latinos who, since January 2007, have been stopped, detained, questioned or searched by the sheriff office’s agents in Maricopa County. The judge in December ordered the office not to detain people based only on reasonable belief or knowledge they are illegal aliens.
“While MCSO officers can, of course, continue to investigate federal and state criminal law, including immigration-related criminal law, to stop people pursuant to such law, officers must have reasonable suspicion that the person is violating that law,” Snow said in his Dec. 23 decision.
Being in the U.S. without proper authorization is a civil violation and isn’t in itself a crime, the judge said in the ruling.
Of the five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, four are U.S. citizens and one had a valid visa when he was stopped.
They seek a court order that their constitutional rights were violated, including their right to equal protection under the law and their right not to be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures. They want the judge to order changes in the sheriff’s office and to appoint a monitor to oversee compliance.
Lawyers for the sheriff’s office said in court filings that the plaintiffs were stopped by deputies because they were violating state traffic laws, not because they were Latino. The deputies at the time of traffic stops were certified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce both criminal and civil federal immigration law, according to a June 2011 filing.
“The illegal immigrants identified in the county are generally not from China, the Caribbean, North Africa, Eastern Europe, or the Indian subcontinent,” the sheriff’s lawyers said. “The fact that most illegal immigrants discovered in Maricopa County are from Mexico, and thus Latino by definition, is neither shocking nor indicative of racial animus against Latinos.”
Arpaio’s department covers Arizona’s biggest county by population, with 3.8 million residents. His methods, including the saturation patrols or “crime suppression” sweeps in predominantly Latino areas in and around Phoenix, the state’s largest city, have made him a hero to groups seeking a crackdown on illegal entrants to the U.S. and a target of advocates for immigrants’ rights.
The case, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, involves allegations similar to those made by the U.S. Justice Department in a civil lawsuit filed in May against Maricopa County and Arpaio.
The Justice Department’s lawsuit accuses the sheriff of “intentionally and systematically” discriminating against Latinos. Arpaio, who has been elected five times and served 20 years in office, said in response to the U.S. lawsuit that President Barack Obama, a Democrat, is going after him to court Latino voters.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down much of Arizona’s first-of-its-kind state law against illegal immigrants, ruling that states must defer to the federal government on immigration policy, an election-year victory for Obama.
The high court invalidated criminal restrictions that would have barred those in the U.S. illegally from seeking work or being in Arizona without proper documentation. The court didn’t block a requirement that local police check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally, while leaving open the possibility of later challenges.
The Supreme Court’s decision may undercut similar laws in other states and will have repercussions for the November presidential election as Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney vie for Hispanic votes.
Supporters of Arizona’s law said the federal government isn’t doing enough to crack down on an estimated 11.5 million people in the country illegally.
The case is Melendres v. Arpaio, 07-02513, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).
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