Sheriff Joe Arpaio does a good job defending the practices of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) in the media, but it may be a different story when he is tasked with doing the same thing in front of a judge and jury.
That’s because the American Civil Liberties Union is set to present its case in Melendres v. Arpaio, the class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Latino residents who it says are at risk of being racially profiled during traffic stops by the MCSO.
“The sheriff’s office targeted Hispanics during traffic stops,” says attorney Andrew C. Byrnes of Covington & Burling, lead counsel on the case. “We’ll show they relied on race and ethnicity for stops and saturation patrols, that the plaintiffs and other Hispanic drivers and passengers were singled out and disproportionately subjected to stops, unlawful seizures and searches.”
Byrnes says Hispanics were stopped at higher rates during saturation patrols, which are anti-immigrant sweeps conducted by the sheriff’s office, and says stops of Hispanics lasted significantly longer than stops of non-Hispanics.
In December, U.S. District G. Murray Snow ruled that any Hispanic stopped by Arpaio’s deputies since January 1, 2007 — or who will be stopped in the future — can sue the sheriff’s office in a class-action lawsuit.
Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, says plaintiffs on the case were subject to specific examples of racial profiling.
Plaintiffs David and Jessika Rodriguez are U.S. citizens who were off-roading with their two young children in December 2007, and rejoined the road in a section that was closed due to flooding. They were stopped and David was asked to produce his Arizona driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. “Then they demanded to see his social security card, while others were simply told to leave the area and were not ticketed,” Wang says. “They were singled out because they are Latino.”
By her own admission, Wang says, the judge admonished the ACLU to focus on systematic examples of racial profiling that exist within Arpaio’s office. She says they will be able to show his office has no rules in place to prevent and stop racial profiling, but Manuel H. Cairo, a Phoenix attorney at Snell & Wilmer, says racial profiling can be difficult to pinpoint.
“Racial profiling in and of itself is a very difficult thing to prove,” he says. “There will have to be evidence that shows a culture of racial profiling and conducting police business in an unconstitutional manner.”
Cairo also chimed in on the fact that Arpaio will take the stand. “Joe Arpaio will go up there to defend his officers and defend his record,” he said, adding that he doesn’t expect fireworks.
But he acknowledges that the ACLU may bring up some of Arpaio’s comments about Latinos in an effort to support the inference that they are an articulation of the MCSO accepting and fostering racial profiling.
Lead counsel Byrnes says Arpaio’s philosophy of “going after illegals and not the crime first” leads to equating undocumented immigrants with Hispanics and with Mexicans, which is part of a systemic pattern.
Wang says Arpaio has a fixation on immigration and equating “illegal” with Latino. “He sets up a dragnet for undocumented immigrants but is violating the rights of U.S. citizens and immigrants alike,” she says.
“We look forward to this trial to put an end to these unlawful practices.”