Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County official who calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” said at a civil rights trial that his department doesn’t arrest people “because of the color of their skin.”
Arpaio, 80, testified yesterday in a federal court trial in Phoenix in which he and his deputies are accused of racially profiling Latinos. He was called as a witness by lawyers backed by the American Civil Liberties Union who represent all Latinos who have been stopped, detained, questioned or searched by Arpaio’s deputies since January 2007. They are seeking a court ruling that the sheriff’s so-called saturation patrols violated the group’s constitutional rights.
Arpaio, dressed in a dark suit, said that prior to 2005, he didn’t view illegal immigration as a “serious legal issue.”
Stanley Young, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, showed Arpaio a sheriff’s department document dated in 2005 in which he had written in the margin, “Is it unreasonable to ask our police to question day laborers about their immigration status?”
Arpaio conceded that he wrote the question in the 2005 memo. He said he became more concerned about illegal immigration in 2006, the year the department created a hotline in which people could report suspected illegal aliens.
U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow in Phoenix will decide the case without a jury. The class-action lawsuit includes allegations similar to those made by the U.S. Justice Department in a suit filed in May against Arpaio, his office and the county. The U.S. accuses Arpaio of “intentionally and systematically” discriminating against Latinos.
Arpaio has denied the allegations. His lawyers have said the traffic stops conducted by the saturation patrols weren’t racially motivated and were prompted by the plaintiffs’ violations of traffic laws.
Arpaio testified yesterday that he preferred the term crime suppression patrols rather than saturation patrols.
“We do not arrest people because of the color of their skin,” he said.
Young, who is with Covington & Burling LLP, asked the court to play a recording of a portion of a 2007 press conference in which Arpaio said “you go after them and you lock them up,” referring to illegal aliens.
Arpaio testified that though enforcing illegal immigration laws was part of the mission of the sheriff’s office, “we enforce all the laws, not just illegal immigration.”
The sheriff serves Arizona’s biggest county by population, with 3.8 million residents. His methods, including the patrols in predominantly Latino areas in and around Phoenix, the state’s largest city, have won him praise from groups seeking a crackdown on illegal entrants to the U.S. and made him a target of advocates for immigrants’ rights.
The case began in 2007, when Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, who was in the U.S. legally on a tourist visa, was detained by sheriff’s deputies near a Cave Creek church where day laborers often gathered.
A driver had picked up Melendres and two other men and was driving away from the church when a deputy stopped the car for speeding. The driver, who was white, wasn’t cited and was allowed to leave, while the Hispanic men were held. Melendres said in the lawsuit that a nine-hour detention that followed was unlawful.
“Three Mexicans in a vehicle and one Anglo driver,” Louis Moffa Jr., one of the lawyers who filed the original complaint in 2007, said in a phone interview. “The Mexicans are arrested, the driver goes on his way. We see in other traffic stops that this was common.”
Melendres is one of the five named plaintiffs in the case. The other four are U.S. citizens.
David Rodriguez, of Mesa, Arizona, testified July 19 that in December 2007, while “four-wheeling” with his family on a dirt road near Bartlett Dam, he inadvertently drove onto a closed road, as did several other vehicles.
Rodriguez said he was cited by a deputy, while the other drivers, all of whom Rodriguez described as white, weren’t cited. Rodriguez said he believed he was cited because he is Hispanic.
Timothy Casey, an attorney for Arpaio and the sheriff’s office who is with Schmitt Schneck Smyth Casey & Even in Phoenix, reminded Rodriguez during cross-examination that he had testified that he’d driven more than 60,000 miles in Maricopa County since being stopped and hadn’t once been pulled over by sheriff’s deputies.
Opinion in Book
Young, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, asked Arpaio about a passage in his 2008 book, “Joe’s Law: America’s Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs and Everything Else That Threatens America.”
“You wrote, ‘all other immigrants, exclusive of those from Mexico, held to certain hopes and truths,’” Young said to Arpaio, asking him if he believes what he wrote.
Arpaio said that opinion is his co-author’s, Len Sherman, and not his own. “The people who come from Mexico have the same hopes as other people,” Arpaio testified.
Young read a 2007 statement to the press from Arpaio in which he said that although some people consider Queen Creek, Cave Creek and Wickenburg in the county to be “sanctuaries” for large numbers of illegal day laborers who work in these towns, he thought “the only sanctuary for illegal aliens is in Mexico.”
In response to Young’s questioning, Arpaio said he believed “when people come into this country illegally and are deported they should stay in that country and not keep coming back into our country.”
When Young asked Arpaio about the likelihood that day laborers in those towns hadn’t committed any crimes but were nevertheless detained by sheriff’s deputies, Arpaio responded, “We don’t go grabbing people off street corners unless there is a crime committed,” adding that being in the country illegally is a crime.
Young questioned Arpaio about the many letters the sheriff had received from citizens complaining about neighbors the writers assumed were illegal aliens.
“Sheriff, have you ever written back to the letter writer and told them it is not a crime to be a minority?” Young asked. “Have you said, ‘I’m not going to go after people based on their race or ethnicity?’”
Arpaio responded, “I might have. I don’t remember.”
The plaintiffs are asking for a federally appointed monitor to be put in place in the sheriff’s office to ensure racial profiling doesn’t take place.
The case is Melendres v. Arpaio, 07-02513, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at firstname.lastname@example.org