By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX, July 26 (Reuters) - A deputy from a controversial Arizona sheriff's office fought off accusations of racial profiling by telling a court on Thursday that he had gone as far as risking his life to rescue a Hispanic undocumented immigrant from kidnappers.
Carlos Rangel told a civil trial alleging Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office engage in racially profiling Latinos that, at the behest of federal immigration police, he played the role of the immigrant's relative to meet kidnappers. They were subsequently arrested and the immigrant was released.
In cross examination defense counsel Tom Liddy asked Rangel if he risked his life protecting a Hispanic who was not from the United States, Rangel said: "Yes." Liddy asked Rangel if he was an "anti-Hispanic bigot", to which he replied "No. I am not."
Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," is on trial in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in a class-action lawsuit that will test whether police can target undocumented immigrants without racially profiling Hispanic citizens and legal residents.
The 80-year-old lawman testified this week he was against "anyone racial profiling" and denied his office arrested "people because of the color of their skin."
The sheriff, who is seeking re-election to a sixth term in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws in the state, which borders Mexico, as well as his investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's U.S. birth certificate.
Arizona was in the news last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key element of the state's crackdown on undocumented immigrants requiring police to investigate those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.
Arpaio faces a separate, broader lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work and a disregard for minority rights.
The civil lawsuit being heard in court was lodged in the name of Manuel Ortega Melendres, one of five Hispanics who say they were stopped by deputies because they were Latino, which Arpaio denies. It was later opened to all Latino drivers stopped since 2007.
Melendres, a Mexican tourist on a valid visa in a truck was pulled over ostensibly because the white driver was speeding. Rangel, who arrested Melendres, was asked by plaintiffs' counsel if he had questioned the driver. He told the court he had no grounds to investigate the driver.
When asked by Liddy if he had ever racially profiled anyone while working at the sheriff's office, Rangel, a 13-year veteran of the force, replied: "No".
The jury trial before Judge Murray Snow is expected to run until August 2. (Editing by Mary Milliken)
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.