Arizona Sheriff Violated Latinos’ Rights, Judge Rules

Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, violated the constitutional rights of Latinos who were stopped and detained as part of a crackdown on illegal immigrants, a federal judge said.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office “has no authority to detain people based only on reasonable suspicion, or probable cause, without more, that such persons are in this country without authorization,” U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow in Phoenix said in a 142-page ruling yesterday. “It is not a violation of federal criminal law to be in this country without authorization in and of itself.”

The judge, who decided the case after a trial without a jury that ended Aug. 2, forbade the sheriff’s office from detaining Latino drivers and passengers only on the suspicion they are illegal immigrants or to use race or Latino ancestry as a reason to stop a vehicle.

The sheriff’s office was also ordered not to detain Latinos stopped for a traffic violation longer than needed to resolve the violation if there was no reason to believe they broke the law.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of all Latinos who, since January 2007, have been stopped, detained, questioned or searched by sheriff’s deputies in Maricopa County. The civil rights case is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Chris Hegstrom, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, didn’t immediately return a call yesterday seeking comment on the ruling. Tim Casey, a lawyer who represented the sheriff’s office at the trial, had no immediate comment yesterday.

Next Step

The next step will be to ask the judge to put a mechanism in a place to make sure the sheriff’s office complies with the ruling, Cecillia Wang, a lawyer for the ACLU who represented the plaintiffs at the trial, said yesterday in a phone interview.

The injunction goes to heart of the sheriff’s “reign of terror,” Wang said.

“He will be held accountable,” Wang said. “He’s not above the law.”

Arpaio’s department covers Arizona’s biggest county by population, with 3.8 million residents. His methods, including saturation patrols or “crime suppression” sweeps in predominantly Latino areas in and around Phoenix, have made him a hero to groups seeking a crackdown on illegal entrants to the U.S. and a target of advocates for immigrants’ rights.

U.S. Lawsuit

The allegations in the class-action case are similar to those made by the U.S. Justice Department in a civil lawsuit filed in May of last year against Maricopa County and Arpaio.

The Justice Department, in its lawsuit, accuses the sheriff of “intentionally and systematically” discriminating against Latinos. Arpaio, 80, who has been elected five times and served 20 years in office, said in response to the U.S. lawsuit that President Barack Obama, a Democrat, is going after him to court Latino voters.

Arpaio, who calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” testified at last year’s trial that his department doesn’t arrest people “because of the color of their skin.”

While many deputies had undergone training regarding racial profiling, according to trial witnesses, Arpaio testified that he hadn’t gone through the training.

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.

Traffic Stop

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.

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.

“The voices of Sheriff Arpaio’s racial profiling victims have been heard, Nancy Ramirez, western regional counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an e-mailed statement.

The ‘‘decision vindicates Maricopa County community members who have long suffered from the sheriff’s discriminatory and illegal practices,” she said. “We look forward to seeing much needed reforms implemented at the MCSO.”

The case is Melendres v. Arpaio, 07-02513, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).

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