PHOENIX, May 24 (Reuters) - Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio violated the constitutional rights of Latino drivers in his crackdown on illegal immigration, a federal judge found on Friday, and ordered him to stop using race as a factor in law enforcement decisions.

The ruling against the Maricopa County sheriff came in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by Hispanic drivers that tested whether police can target illegal immigrants without racially profiling U.S. citizens and legal residents of Hispanic origin.

U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow ruled that the sheriff's policies violated the drivers' constitutional rights and ordered Arpaio's office to cease using race or ancestry as a grounds to stop, detain or hold occupants of vehicles - some of them in crime sweeps dubbed "saturation patrols."

"The great weight of the evidence is that all types of saturation patrols at issue in this case incorporated race as a consideration into their operations," Snow said in a written ruling.

He added that race had factored into which vehicles the deputies decided to stop, and into who they decided to investigate for immigration violations.

The lawsuit contended that Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," and his officers violated the constitutional rights of both U.S. citizens and legal immigrants alike in their zeal to crack down on people they believe to be in the country illegally.

The ruling came days after a U.S. Senate panel approved a landmark comprehensive immigration legislation that would usher in the biggest changes in immigration policy in a generation if passed by Congress.

The bill would put 11 million immigrants without legal status on a 13-year path to citizenship while further strengthening security along the porous southwestern border with Mexico.

Arpaio declined comment on the ruling. A sheriff's spokesman referred a request for comment to attorney Tim Casey, who said he was reading the ruling and had no immediate comment.

'ILLEGAL AND PLAIN UN-AMERICAN'

Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project and plaintiffs' counsel, called the judge's ruling "an important victory that will resound far beyond Maricopa County."

"Singling people out for traffic stops and detentions simply because they're Latino is illegal and just plain un-American," Wang said after the ruling was made public.

"Let this be a warning to anyone who hides behind a badge to wage their own private campaign against Latinos or immigrants that there is no exception in the Constitution for violating people's rights in immigration enforcement."

During testimony in the non-jury trial last year, Arpaio said he was against racial profiling and denied his office arrested people because of the color of their skin.

The sheriff, who won 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 an investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's U.S. birth certificate.

The lawsuit was brought against Arpaio and his office on behalf of five Hispanic drivers who said they had been stopped by deputies because of their ethnicity.

The plaintiffs, which include the Somos America immigrants' rights coalition and all Latino drivers stopped by the sheriff's office since 2007, were seeking corrective action but not monetary damages.

Arpaio has been the subject of other probes and lawsuits. In August, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona said it had closed a criminal investigation into accusations of financial misconduct by Arpaio, and it declined to bring charges.

A separate U.S. Justice Department investigation and lawsuit relating to accusations of civil rights abuses by Arpaio's office is ongoing.

Arizona has been at the heart of a bitter national debate over immigration since Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a 2010 crackdown on illegal immigration.

The federal government challenged the crackdown in court and said the U.S. Constitution gives it sole authority over immigration policy. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has allowed to stand the part of the law permitting police to question people they stop about their immigration status.

Snow scheduled a hearing in the case for June 14 at 9:30 a.m. at the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Federal Courthouse in Phoenix. (Reporting by Tim Gaynor and David Schwartz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Eric Walsh, Toni Reinhold)

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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.