A class-action lawsuit alleging racial profiling is aimed at ending Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s much-publicized immigration sweeps.
Four American citizens, a valid U.S. visa holder and a Latino activist group, filed the lawsuit against Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the county Wednesday morning. They allege that the Latino community is being unlawfully stopped and mistreated because of the color of their skin.
The lawsuit was originally filed in U.S. District Court in December and Wednesday’s filing is an amended complaint, adding more plaintiffs and updating the allegations.
“I feel very comfortable on how we operate,” Arpaio said. “We’ll see them in court and in the meantime I’ll continue my job - nothing’s stopping me.”
Critics say the sheriff is dividing the community over a charged issue and has created a culture of fear among Latinos.
The experiences of the five individuals outlined in the lawsuit, they say, shows a clear pattern of discrimination.
Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres was in the country on a valid U.S. visa when the vehicle he was in was stopped by MCSO officers in September 2007. While a Caucasian man was driving the car, ostensibly stopped for speeding, it was Ortega who asked to show his identification. The Caucasian man was not cited. Ortega showed his U.S. visa, and a Mexican voter card and a valid U.S. federal permit.
Regardless, the lawsuit alleges, the officers asked Ortega to step out of the vehicle, treated him roughly, handcuffed him and injured him in the process.
They then took him to their Cave Creek office, where he was detained for hours, without telling him why he was being detained and without providing a Spanish-speaker to communicate with him.
Manuel Nieto, Jr., a U.S. citizen, alleges that he was questioned because an MCSO officer heard him listening to Spanish music during the sweeps in Cave Creek. In another case, a couple visiting Lake Bartlett were specifically asked for identification because of their skin color, unlike two other vehicles in front of them, which also were stopped, but were let go without any paperwork check, the lawsuit says.
While none of the individuals were available for comment, Nieto said in a prepared statement: “It’s not a crime to be Latino or listen to a Spanish-language radio station but you wouldn’t know that by the way Sheriff Joe and his posse treat people.”
Alessandra Soler-Meetze, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union, Arizona, said these people were a victim of their skin color.
MCSO has about 160 deputies and detention officers trained under a federal program called 287(g) that allows his officers to check a person’s immigration status. But ACLU officials say the sheriff’s authority to check that is limited to those who are booked in jail for a criminal activity, not during a routine traffic stop.
“They’re abusing the scope of their agreement with ICE and it’s about time the feds knew this,” Soler-Meetze said.
Robin Goldfaden, a senior staff attorney at ACLU’s San Francisco office of the Immigrants’ Rights Project, believes the plaintiff’s stories are proof enough of the civil rights’ violations and would stand up in court.
“These are serious allegations and it’s a widespread, documented problem,” Goldfaden said.
Hector Yturralde, president of Somos America, the community coalition which also joined the lawsuit, said many Latinos have complained of being targeted by the sheriff’s officers, despite being in the country legally.
“Joe Arpaio needs to stop these so-called crime sweeps and stop using them as an attempt to do grandstanding of far-right extremists and becoming their crusader,” Yturralde said.
Critics allege that to check immigration status, there must be probable cause to stop a person, which doesn’t happen in many cases.
“He’s doing the opposite,” Yturralde said. “His posse stops people to check if they’re citizens and if they question why they were stopped in the first place, they make up excuses like the way they swerved the car to make a turn or some such nonsense.”
Arpaio said the agency works closely with ICE and that the federal authorities monitor everything.
Instead, Arpaio said he also finds himself being called a Nazi and other racial epithets. “I might be contacting them (ACLU) myself someday,” he said.
In a five-part investigative series published last week, the Tribune also found that MCSO’s illegal immigration sweeps violate the federal regulations intended to prevent racial profiling. Those regulations require the sheriff to have “reliable, empirical data” such as 911 calls or specific crime reports that serious crime is taking place before it can use its federal authority during large-scale operations.
But, as the Tribune documented, MCSO conducts large-scale operations without any evidence of specific criminal activity. Reports sent to ICE by deputies show that the sweeps are basically done at the request of business owners who don’t like day laborers near their businesses.
ICE officials say the deputies have followed every condition in the agencies contract. However, they won’t discuss ICE policy about when the federal authority can be used to make traffic stops.