July 19, 2012

Ariz. sheriff faces profiling allegations at trial

Plaintiffs say Sheriff Joe Arpaio's officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics, and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.

Jacques Billeaud / The Associated Press

PHOENIX — For six years, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America has vehemently denied allegations that his deputies racially profile Latinos in his trademark immigration patrols.

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A defiant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio pounds his fist on the podium as he answers questions regarding the Department of Justice announcing a federal civil lawsuit against him and his department, during a news conference in Phoenix on May 10, 2012.

AP

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Joe Arpaio would dismiss his critics in his signature brash style at countless news conferences and in numerous appearances on television.

Now, the sheriff in Arizona's most populous county will have to convince a federal judge who is presiding over a lawsuit that heads to trial today and is expected to last until early August.

The plaintiffs say Arpaio's officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics who were in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.

"He is not free to say whatever he wants," said Dan Pochoda, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, one of the groups that has pushed the lawsuit against Arpaio.

"He will be called as a witness in our case," Pochoda said. "He will not have control over the flow of information, and he is not the final arbiter."

The plaintiffs aren't seeking money damages and instead are seeking a declaration that Arpaio's office racially profiles and an order that requires it to make changes to prevent what they said is discriminatory policing.

If Arpaio loses the civil case, he won't face jail time or fines.

Arpaio declined to comment, and his lead attorney, Tim Casey, didn't return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

But at a late June hearing, Casey said the sheriff wanted the trial so he could prove his critics wrong and remove the stigma that the racial profiling allegation carries. "What we want is resolution," Casey said.

The lawsuit marks the first case in which the sheriff's office has been accused of systematically racially profiling Latinos and will serve as a bellwether for a similar yet broader civil rights lawsuit filed against Arpaio in May by the U.S. Department of Justice.

That lawsuit makes many of the same racial profiling allegations, but goes further to say that Arpaio's office retaliated against its critics, punished Latino jail inmates with limited English skills for speaking Spanish and failed to adequately investigate a large number of sex-crimes cases. No trial date in that case has been set.

Arpaio has said the DOJ lawsuit is a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration as a way to court Latino voters in a presidential election year. DOJ officials say the department began its initial civil rights inquiry of Arpaio's office during the Bush administration and notified the sheriff of its formal investigation a few months after Obama took office.

Arpaio has staked his reputation on immigration enforcement and, in turn, won support and financial contributors from people across the country who helped him build a $4 million campaign war chest.

The patrols have brought allegations that Arpaio himself ordered some of them not based on reports of crime but letters from Arizonans who complained about people with dark skin congregating in an area or speaking Spanish.

Some of the people who filed the lawsuit were stopped by Arpaio's deputies in regular patrols, while others were stopped in his special immigration patrols known as "sweeps."

During the sweeps, deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.

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