Did Arizona lawmaker Sheriff Joe Arpaio violate the civil rights of the United States?
PHOENIX – The Arizona sheriff who
has made headlines across the country for his tough stance on
undocumented immigrants amid
allegations that his trademark immigration sweeps amounted to racial
profiling against Latinos.
Lawyers who say that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office
disproportionately singled out Latinos in the patrols accused 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."
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.
Arpaio has long denied racial profiling allegations. He declined to comment Monday through a spokesman.
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
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
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
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
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
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 and not to be trusted to do the sweeps.
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
Federal Judge Murray Snow heard from the plaintiffs, from the
author of a study showing Latinos in Maricopa County are more likely to
be stopped and stopped for longer periods of time, and from Arpaio
himself. Lawyers will ask Arpaio to explain his response to inflammatory
emails and letters he received.
letters would say things like, 'There are Mexicans hanging out on such
and such a corner — I think you need to do something about it,' " she
Wang says Arpaio wouldn't just toss or
file the correspondence, he'd send thank-you notes, then pass along the
messages to his chief deputy marked "for our operations."
you see is a pattern where the sheriff would acknowledge a racially
discriminatory letter from a constituent, and then following that, you'd
see the sheriff go in and do an immigration sweep in the very area
singled out in a discriminatory way by that constituent," she says.
So did Joe violate the civil rights of United States? You be the judge.
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