By JACQUES BILLEAUD, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PHOENIX -- Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's anti-illegal immigration patrols are taking center stage in federal court in Phoenix.
A lawyer for a group of Latinos who filed a civil lawsuit against his department said in opening statements Thursday that the evidence will show that Arpaio and his deputies racially profiled Hispanics.
"It's our view that the problem starts at the top," attorney Stan Young said.
Tim Casey, who is defending Arpaio, said the patrols were properly planned out and executed. He said they exceeded police standards. He said, "race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the traffic stops."
The plaintiffs aren't seeking money damages. They want 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.
The lawsuit filed by a handful of Latinos will serve as a precursor to a U.S. Justice Department's case that alleges a broader range of civil rights violations by Arpaio's office. Although not involved in Thursday's case, a DOJ lawyer leading the agency's civil rights case watched the trial.
Arpaio was not expected in court Thursday.
For years, Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America, has vehemently denied allegations that his deputies in Arizona's most populous county racially profile Latinos in his trademark patrols.
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 pushed the lawsuit against Arpaio. "He will be called as a witness."
If Arpaio loses the civil case, he won't face jail time or fines.
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 DOJ 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 deputies in regular patrols, while others were stopped in his special immigration 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.
Undocumented immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by his office since January 2008, according to figures provided by Arpaio's office, which hasn't conducted any of the special patrols since October.
Arpaio has repeatedly said people who are pulled over in his patrols were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that officers found that many of them were undocumented immigrants.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow has issued rulings against Arpaio earlier in the case.
In December, he barred Arpaio's deputies who are enforcing Arizona's 2005 immigrant smuggling law from detaining people based solely on the suspicion that they're in the country without documents. Arpaio has appealed that decision.
The judge also has reminded plaintiffs' attorneys what they need to prove to make their claim of systematic discrimination. At a March hearing, he told them that to back up the racial profiling allegations, they must show Arpaio's office had a policy that was intentionally discriminatory.
The plaintiffs' attorneys say they plan to do so, in part, by focusing on their allegation that Arpaio launched some patrols based on racially charged citizen complaints that alleged no actual crimes.
Separate from the two lawsuits that allege racial profiling, a federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.
Maricopa County Employees Call Latinos Derogatory Names
Jail employees frequently refer to Latinos as "wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," and "stupid Mexicans," according to the lawsuit. An email that included a photography of a Chihahua dressed in swimming gear with the caption "A Rare Photo of a Mexican Navy Seal" was widely distributed by sheriff's office supervisors.
Officers Mistreat Latinos In Routine Traffic Enforcement
The lawsuit recounts how a Latina woman who was five-months pregnant and a U.S. citizen was stopped as she pulled into the driveway. "After she exited her car, the officer then insisted that she sit on the hood of the car. When she refused, the officer grabbed her arms, puled them behind her back, and slammed her, stomach first, into the vehicle three times. He then dragged her to the patrol car and shoved her into the backseat," reads the complaint. She was cited for failure to provide identification, which was later changed to failure to provide proof of insurance. The issue was resolved when the woman proved she had insurance to a court. In yet another case, two officers followed a Latina U.S. citizen a quarter of a mile to her home without flashing their lights. When she arrived home, they insisted that she stay in the car. The reason for the stop was a "non-functioning license plate light." After she tried to enter her home, officers took her to the ground, kneed her in the back and handcuffed her. She was brought to a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) substation and cited for "disorderly conduct," which was later dismissed, according to the lawsuit.
Latinos Are Indiscriminately Detained In Immigration Raids
A Latina born in the United States was taken into custody for four hours in a raid to determine her immigration status. Arpaio was quoted in response, "That's just normal police work. You sometimes take people in for probable cause for questioning and they're released." The suit notes that the reason for her detainment -- being Latina and present during a raid -- were insufficient.
Arpaio And MCSO Staff Foster Discrimination Against Latinos
Arpaio received a letter reading, "If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin. Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegals who are here illegally. ... I'm begging you to come over ... and round them all up." The sheriff labeled this as "intelligence" and forwarded to his deputy chief of enforcement operations for someone to "handle this." Upon receiving a letter backing the policy of "stopping Mexicans to make sure they are legal," he sent a letter of appreciation to the authors and kept three copies for himself, according to the lawsuit. An email circulated among MCSO staff had an image of a fake driver's license from "Mexifornia" and listed the driver's class as "illegal alien."
MCSO Employees Fail To Provide Assistance To Prisoners With Limited English
The failure to provide adequate language assistance caused some female Latina prisoners to remain with sheets or pants soiled from menstruation, alleges the suit. Others have allegedly been put in solitary confinement for "extended periods of time" for not understanding a command in English.
MCSO Arrests Arpaio Critics Expressing Their First Amendment Rights
The suit claims on multiple occasions that people were arrested for merely applauding against the office's immigration policies. The judge presiding over the case of the arrestees found that the deputy who made the arrest "believes it is his role to make uncomfortable anyone who express[es] views that disagree with the sheriff" and that he had "trampled" over the First Amendment. The court acquitted them.