By JACQUES BILLEAUD, ASSOCIATED PRESS
PHOENIX -- The self-described "America's toughest sheriff" has survived firestorms in the past, but none in the past decade have been as bad as what the lawman has been hit with in the past few weeks.
And in a few days, a federal judge could make things worse for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow heard arguments over a lawsuit from a handful of Latino residents alleging racial profiling during Arpaio's immigration sweeps. He could send it to trial, throw it out, or declare that Arpaio uses racial profiling in his immigration enforcement.
The accusations echo those in a scathing U.S. Justice Department report last week that resulted in the sheriff's office losing its power to check inmates' immigration status.
Arpaio on Wednesday questioned the timing of the report's release.
"Why couldn't they wait? Were they trying to poison our (racial profiling) case?" Arpaio said. The sheriff did not attend the hearing Thursday.
The Latinos claim officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics in vehicles, pulling them over without probable cause to inquire about their immigration status. The stops were made during his department's immigration patrols in metropolitan Phoenix.
They are seeking a declaration that the sheriff's office violated their constitutional rights and must establish stronger policies that protect against racial profiling.
Stan Young, a lawyer for those who filed the lawsuit, said Arpaio launched sweeps after he received racially charged letters and emails that complained of people speaking Spanish. Tim Casey, a lawyer for Arpaio's office, said the sheriff's office launches its sweeps on race-neutral grounds and that the sheriff never acted on those letters.
"If I write you a letter and say all sorts of things in that and you receive it, does that mean you are a racist because you received a letter from me?" Casey said outside of court. He called for the case to be dismissed, arguing that those who filed the lawsuit could not prove that they face a threat of future injury from the sweeps.
The hearing was the latest among the mounting legal problems and blistering criticism facing the sheriff in just the past three weeks.
At the beginning of December, he apologized for more than 400 botched sex crimes cases handled by his office. About a week later, the Justice Department released the report alleging a wide range of civil rights violations against his office. A lawsuit filed this week claimed that his staff ignored a Hispanic female inmate's complaints and violated her rights when they kept her shackled before and after her cesarean section in 2009.
And the family of a 44-year-old man was exploring legal action against the sheriff's office after he was found unresponsive following a fight in jail with deputies. He died days later after being taken off life support.
Arpaio has denied the racial profiling allegations in the lawsuit over his immigration patrols. He has said people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that deputies found many of them were undocumented immigrants.
The patrols, known as "sweeps," involved deputies flooding an area – 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.
The Justice Department's report said Arpaio's office had a pattern of racially profiling Latinos; basing immigration enforcement on racially charged complaints; and punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish. The sheriff faces a Jan. 4 deadline for saying whether he wants to work out an agreement to settle allegations, and the Justice Department has said it's prepared to sue Arpaio if no agreement can be worked out.
Apart from the civil rights probe, a federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009. It is specifically examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.