PHOENIX -- A federal judge ruled on Friday that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio engaged in racial profiling of Latinos, violating their constitutional rights in his crackdown on illegal immigration. Civil rights advocates expect the ruling to send a chilling message to other law enforcement agencies that are planning to engage in immigration enforcement.
“The order today will have national importance in deterring others across the country,” said Dan Pochoda, one of the prosecuting attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
In his ruling, U.S. Federal District Judge Murray Snow found that sheriff’s deputies engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against Latinos during immigration sweeps and enforcement of state immigration laws.
Snow said in the decision that the Sheriff’s Office had “failed to have a clear policy that required execution of the saturation patrols and other enforcement efforts in a race-neutral manner; made no efforts to determine whether its officers were engaging in racially-biased enforcement during its saturation patrols, and failed to comply with standard police practices concerning record-keeping maintained by other law enforcement authorities engaged in such operations.”
Arpaio’s attorney Tim Casey said the Sheriff's Office would comply with the order but that he would appeal the decision.
The long-awaited decision in a trial that ended last July represents a pivotal moment for Arizona civil rights organizations and immigrant rights groups that spent the last five years denouncing Arpaio’s high-profile crusade against undocumented immigrants.
At the heart of the trial was proving that Arpaio’s agency had the intent to discriminate during its immigration operations or “crime suppression patrols” and that it has engaged in a practice of racial profiling of Latinos that remains to this day.
The ACLU and MALDEF are not seeking monetary relief but say they want to end racial profiling by the Sheriff’s Office. Among the changes they may ask for are the development of a policy to ban the practice of racial profiling, active monitoring of deputy conduct and record keeping for traffic stops.
The lawsuit was brought by several U.S. citizens and Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was detained by deputies during a traffic stop when he was a passenger in a vehicle.
Arpaio started what he called his “crime suppression operations” in 2007, shortly after signing an agreement with the federal government – known as 287(g) -- that gave his deputies the legal authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
The immigration raids and sweeps that followed created an uproar from Latinos who felt they were being targeted because of the color of their skin. That sparked a Justice Department civil rights investigation and subsequent litigation, the ACLU-MALDEF lawsuit, and the announcement by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano that the federal government was revoking its 287(g) agreement with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
In response to the uproar over the immigration raids, conservative politicians in Arizona, backed by Arpaio, crafted an unprecedented piece of state legislation -- the Support our Law-Enforcement and Secure Neighborhoods Act, or SB 1070 – that was signed into law in 2010, making it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant.
Arpaio’s testimony as the head of the agency was essential to the trial because attorneys were trying to prove that the discrimination came from “the top,” and that it was fueled in part by the sheriff’s public statements and his inaction in taking steps to avoid the alleged violations.
Part of the evidence presented by the ACLU included letters from constituents in Maricopa County that encouraged Arpaio to racially profile. The letters were used to underscore prosecutors’ argument that there was discriminatory motivation at the heart of Arpaio’s immigration enforcement tactics.
One of the letters, received on June 19, 2008, read: “If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin! Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegals who are here ILLEGALLY […] They bring their unclean, disrespectful, integrity-less, law breaking selves here […] I am begging you to come over to the 29thSt/Greenway Pkwy area and round them all up!...They crawl around here all day and night.”
Arpaio kept a copy of this and many other letters in an immigration file. He sent his constituents thank you notes for their support, and in some cases, like this one, he wrote notes to his staff: “Have someone handle this.”
An immigration sweep was later conducted in that area.
What lies ahead
The ruling brought a sigh of relief to many immigrants in Arizona who for years have been fearful of the Sheriff’s Office’s practice of conducting sweeps in neighborhoods and places of employment. Yet ACLU attorney Daniel Pochoda warned that there is still another phase of the trial, in which the court will decide how to make sure the judge’s injunction is enforced properly.
In his ruling, Snow said that Arpaio’s agency had failed to comply with a previous order by the court not to use the suspicion of someone being in the country illegally as a reason to pull people over or initiate an investigation.
With today’s ruling, and an effort to recall Sheriff Joe Arpaio underway, momentum seems to be building in opposition to the controversial figure.
But whether this could spell relief for those who were arrested in Arpaio’s sweeps remains unknown.
“While today's court ruling is undeniably a victory, real justice will come when the victims of Arpaio see their rights fully vindicated,” said Carlos García, director of the Phoenix-based PUENTE Movement, which advocates on behalf of immigrants. “At a bare minimum, the White House should respond by immediately suspending deportations throughout Maricopa County.”