A federal judge on Friday found the department run by the self-professed "toughest sheriff in America'' was guilty of racial profiling and ordered the agency's practices permanently halted.
In a 140-page ruling, Judge Murray Snow said members of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, under the direction of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, were detaining individuals they believed to be in this country illegally without some other reason to arrest them for violating any state laws. Snow said that continued to occur even after the Department of Homeland Security revoked the MCSO's authority to identify and detain those not in the country legally.
- RELATED: "Reasonable Doubt" -- The East Valley Tribune's five-part series investigating the hidden costs of the MCSO's immigration enforcement efforts... winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting
The judge also said that department policy and practice allows officers to consider the race of a vehicle's occupants in determining whether they have reasonable suspicion to investigate them for violation of any state immigration laws.
"In some instances these policies result in prolonging the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to resolve the issue that initially justified the stop,'' Snow wrote. And he said that, absent some reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, holding people longer than necessary violates their constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
Snow said that entitled Hispanic individuals who sued to an injunction permanently barring the sheriff's department from using Hispanic ancestry or race to determine whether to stop a vehicle. It also prohibits deputies from detaining or arresting Latino vehicle occupants on a belief that they are in this country illegally if race is the only factor they have.
The order also bars the agency from detaining Latino occupants of vehicles stopped for traffic violations any longer than necessary to process the citation unless they have "reasonable suspicion'' that any are committing a federal or state crime.
Arpaio told Capitol Media Services he does not believe his agency engages in racial profiling.
"That's why we're going to appeal it,'' he said.
Byt Dan Pochoda, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said the ruling confirms the allegations that Latinos have been "terrorized'' by MCSO deputies and "forced to endure years of racial harassment and abuse.'' And Pochoda, in a prepared statement, said all that can be laid at the feet of "Arpaio's proven willingness to seek political gain at the expense of public safety and constitutional guarantees.''
Snow said that, at least on paper, the instructions to deputies were that vehicles were not to be stopped based on the race of any subject in a vehicle.
But he said evidence painted a somewhat different picture.
"While officers were prohibited from using race as the only basis to undertake a law enforcement investigation, they were allowed as a matter of policy and instruction to consider race as one factor among others in making law enforcement decisions in the context of immigration enforcement,'' the judge wrote.
Snow reached his ruling after reviewing years of crime prevention "saturation patrols'' by the department. He said these were far from neutral.
"The MCSO almost always scheduled its day labor and small-scale saturation patrols where Latino day laborers congregated,'' he said. "The same is true for a considerable number of its large-scale saturation patrols.''
And Snow said it is clear that the purpose of these patrols was to enforce immigration laws, citing the news releases issued by the agency's public relations department.
"These news releases either emphasized that the patrols' purpose was immigration enforcement, or prominently featured the number of unauthorized aliens arrested during such operations,'' Snow said. "Most of the time, the reports ignored any other arrests that took place.''
Snow also said the saturation operations were just a pretext to stop vehicles with people who may be in this country illegally.
"During saturation patrols, participating deputies conducted many stops for minor violations of the traffic code, including minor equipment violations,'' the judge said. "This departments from MCSO's traffic enforcement priorities during regular patrols.''
And Snow said that, generally speaking, deputies "had no difficulty in finding a basis to stop any vehicle they wished for a traffic infraction.''