Joe Arpaio will have his day in court. The trial for the five-year racial profiling suit against the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” in America is kicking off today in Phoenix. The Maricopa County Sheriff and his agency are being charged with targeting Latino drivers and passengers in his traffic stops and crime suppression sweeps, thereby engaging in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination. The ruling on the case, attorneys say, could go a long way to providing some measure of relief to those who’ve been terrorized by Arpaio’s actions for years.
Attorneys for plaintiffs of the class-action suit say they have sufficient evidence to make their case, including testimony from U.S. citizens and people who were in the country lawfully but were targeted, detained and harassed because of the color of their skin. Andrew Byrnes, an attorney with Covington & Burling working with the civil rights coalition on the case, said they will make their case suing data provided by the office which show that Latinos were stopped at higher rates during “saturation patrols” than other times. Byrnes said their data show that no matter when stops occurred, even when they didn’t happen during Arpaio’s famed crime suppression sweeps and traffic stops, stops of Latino drivers lasted longer than stops of non-Latino drivers. Lawyers will also present internal communication in the MCSO showing Arpaio’s use of inflammatory language and his endorsement of racial profiling.
While Arpaio has been long reviled by the immigrant community very familiar with these abuses, today marks the first day that these claims of civil rights violations will be put to the test.
Arpaio denies the racial profiling allegations, and has said that people who were pulled over were done so because they were suspected of other criminal activity. He also faces a separate lawsuit from the Department of Justice over similar charges.
Yet to many in the immigrant and Latino community, Arpaio’s already been found guilty, said Sandra Castro, an organizer with the Phoenix-based human rights group Puente. Puente, she said, has been fielding complaints, and documenting Arpaio’s abuses, for years.
When the Department of Homeland Security began delegating its immigration enforcement work to Arpaio in 2007 with its 287(g) agreement, it opened the door to the kinds of abuses he’s being prosecuted for now. The 287(g) program allows for local law enforcement to enforce immigration law in the course of their regular patrol duties. For the federal government, the agreements were an efficient partnership. For immigrant communities, 287(g) agreements made every police officer start to look like a potential immigration agent.
For Arpaio, the agreements authorized him to conduct exactly the kinds of activity the civil rights groups and the federal government, in a separate lawsuit it filed just this year, are trying to curb now. “These so-called crime suppression sweeps would happen every week for three days straight,” and many who were targeted had no idea the extent of Arpaio’s sweeps, Castro said. It was “when the public started seeing police getting into unmarked vehicles, coming out in ski masks and pulling people over for cracked windshields,” she said, that people started taking notice.
The class of the lawsuit is broad—any relief that comes will go toward “all Latino persons” who have been or will be stopped, detained, questioned or searched by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office agents while they’re in a car. Still, Castro noted, Arpaio’s tactics targeted more than just Latinos. “It was not just the migrant community and the Chicano community. A lot of folks from the Native American and African American community were targeted by the racial profiling sweeps he makes,” she said.
The case comes at a time when activists and advocates are also fighting SB 1070, the Arizona law which compels police officers around the state to in effect operate in much the way Arpaio’s been conducting his agency for years. Can law enforcement officers can enforce immigration policy without relying on racial profiling? Whatever resolution comes from this case will be an attempt at answering that question. The trial is set to last 6 days and conclude on August 2.