By JACQUES BILLEAUD, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHOENIX — An Arizona sheriff known nationally for his hardline stance on illegal immigration took the witness stand Tuesday and faced allegations that his trademark immigration sweeps amounted to racial profiling against Hispanics.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, testifying on his own behalf in a civil trial Tuesday, was asked about a statement in which he called undocumented immigrants "dirty."

Arpaio said the proper context was needed to understand that statement, adding that if a person were to cross the border on foot over four days in the desert that person "could be dirty. That's the context on how I used that word."

Arpaio was without his typical bluster under questioning from lawyers for plaintiffs who say his policies are discriminatory. He said he has the flu and is speaking in a more hushed tone than normal, clearing his throat often.

Plaintiffs say Arpaio's office disproportionately singled out Latinos in the patrols and accuse him of launching some sweeps based on emails and letters that don't allege crimes, but complain only that "dark-skinned people" are congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish.

A group of Latinos who say they have been discriminated against filed the civil lawsuit against the sheriff who makes jail inmates sleep in tents and wrote an autobiography titled "America's Toughest Sheriff."

Arpaio has long denied racial profiling allegations and said Tuesday, "We don't arrest people because of the color of their skin."

During the sweeps that are at the center of the case, sheriff's 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 Arpaio's office since January 2008, according to figures provided by the sheriff's department, which hasn't conducted any such patrols since October.

The plaintiffs aren't seeking money in the suit. They are seeking a declaration that Arpaio's office racially profiles Latinos and an order requiring policy changes.

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

The trial began last week and is expected to close next week. It will be decided by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow.

The judge hasn't ruled on the ultimate question of racial profiling, but said in a December ruling that a fact finder could interpret some of Arpaio's public statements as endorsements of racial profiling.

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

The plaintiffs say deputies conducting Arpaio's sweeps pulled over Hispanics without probable cause, making the stops only to inquire about the immigration status of the people in the vehicles.

The sheriff maintains that people are stopped only if authorities have probable cause to believe they have committed crimes and that deputies later find many of the people stopped are undocumented immigrants.

Plaintiff's lawyers say Arpaio endorsed calls for racial profiling with the sweeps by passing along the ambiguous and racially charged complaint letters to aides who planned his immigration enforcement efforts and carried out at least three patrols after receiving the letters.

They also point out that Arpaio wrote thank-you notes to some who sent complaints.

Arpaio's attorneys denied that the letters and emails prompted the sheriff to launch the patrols with a discriminatory motive. His lawyers called the complaints racially insensitive and said aides to the sheriff – not Arpaio himself – decided where to conduct the patrols. They also said there was nothing wrong with the thank-you notes.

"He sends thank-you letters because he is an elected official," Tim Casey, the lawyer leading Arpaio's defense, said during opening arguments.

In an August 2008 letter, a woman wrote about a Sun City restaurant: "From the staff at the register to the staff back in the kitchen area, all I heard was Spanish – except when they haltingly spoke to a customer." The letter ended with a suggestion that the sheriff investigate.

Arpaio made a handwritten note in the margins saying, "letter thank you for info will look into it" and that the complaint should be sent to aide Brian Sands, who selects locations for sweeps, with a notation saying "for our operation." The sheriff's office launched a sweep two weeks later in Sun City.

Earlier in 2008, the sheriff received a letter from a man who complained that police in nearby Mesa hadn't approached day laborers to find out whether they were in the country legally. Plaintiff's lawyers say Arpaio made a notation in the margins about a thank-you note and marked it to draw Sands' attention.

Plaintiff's lawyers said Arpaio got another 2008 letter urging a sweep in Mesa and noting that the leader of the city's police union was Hispanic.

The lawyers said the sheriff wrote "I will be going into Mesa" and sent a copy of the complaint to Sands. Shortly thereafter, the sheriff's office launched a sweep in Mesa and noted in a news release that the sheriff was sending deputies to Mesa "in keeping with his promise to the public," the lawyers said.

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  • 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.