A class action lawsuit that goes to trial in Phoenix today will bring more attention to the tactics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The Arizona sheriff has been vocal that cracking down on illegal immigrants is among his top priorities. Plaintiffs claim Arpaio and his deputies discriminate against Latinos.
Every Latino motorist who has been stopped by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office since 2007 or will be stopped in the future is included in the class action suit.
The case also lists five named plaintiffs, including Jessika and David Rodriguez. In 2007, the couple was driving near Bartlett Lake outside of Phoenix on a closed road.
“When they realized the road was closed, they just made a U-turn and then were stopped by Sheriff’s deputies,” said Alessandra Soler, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
Even though other cars were also making U-turns there, the Latino couple claims their car was the only one that was stopped.
“And [the deputies] asked this particular couple to provide not just a driver’s license, insurance and proof of registration,” Soler said. “But they asked them to provide a Social Security card, and sort of prove they were U.S. citizens.”
The plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU and the law firm, Covington and Burling LLP, claim this was not an isolated case, but part of a systemic practice to target Latino drivers.
“It is essentially coming up with a reason to stop somebody simply because we want to question them about their immigration status, and that is illegal and that constitutes racial profiling,” Soler said.
This case was filed in 2007, years before the U.S. Department of Justice issued its own lawsuit against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. A DOJ report published last December found that Latinos are four to nine times more likely to be stopped than other drivers in Maricopa County.
A data expert, hired by the plaintiffs in the class-action suit that goes to trial this week, found that Latinos were disproportionately targeted during the Sheriff’s crime suppression sweeps, and that when a car had at least one Latino passenger, the car would be detained longer during a traffic stop.
But the legal team for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deny the racial profiling claims, and plan to dispute the statistical data presented by the plaintiffs in court.
“We are licking our chops, [we] can’t wait, to get into federal court,” said Tom Liddy, an attorney for Maricopa County who is part of the team representing the defendants. “The people of Maricopa County and all the state need to know the fine law enforcement that is being done by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, specifically by numerous Hispanic law enforcement officers.”
In legal briefs, the defendants have insisted the Sheriff’s department has a zero tolerance policy that requires deputies to stop every driver they see who breaks the law.
“It would make no sense at all for any one of our law enforcement agencies to profile any racial minority group, certainly not one that is so large and has such a tremendous history here in Arizona as the Hispanic population,” Liddy said.
So far the federal judge hearing the case has seemed more sympathetic to the plaintiff’s arguments. The judge has already ruled in their favor on one claim, sanctioned the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for destroying documents and emails, and ordered the defendants to pay $90,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs.
Still, cases that allege racial profiling are hard to win, according to Kevin Johnson, the Dean of UC Davis Law School.
"It is not just a discriminatory impact, the plaintiffs have to show," Johnson said. "They have to show an affirmative, discriminatory intent by the officials, including Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office directed at Latinos."
And Johnson says to establish intent, you must have a smoking gun.
“Documents using harsh language or discriminatory kinds of language,” Johnson said. “There may be that kind of evidence in this case, it appears, and we will see what comes out.”
The plaintiffs claim they do have that kind of evidence.
In a conference call with reporters, the plaintiffs’ legal team said they will highlight how the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has not instituted checks against racial profiling. They also said they would present racially charged emails sent from constituents to Sheriff Arpaio complaining about the presence of perceived illegal immigrants, and requesting immigration enforcement activity in certain locations.
The attorneys say they will argue that Arpaio then circulated the letters to others and sweeps were later carried out in those locations.
“The Sheriff is keeping [the letters], notating on them that action should be taken, and then giving them to the people on his team that are taking these sorts of law enforcement actions,” said Andrew Byrnes, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The defendants unsuccessfully tried to block the emails from being submitted as evidence, and refute a connection between those emails and the MCSO’s operations.
“The law enforcement officers of Maricopa County or any other agency would never use something like that as an example to go and site a crime suppression operation,” Liddy said.
If the plaintiffs prevail in court, they aren’t seeking monetary damages, they want the judge to force the Sheriff’s Office to institute protections against racial profiling.
Ultimately observers agree this case will have national reverberations. One reason: The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the heart of Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070. That provision, which was copied in the laws of several other states, requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of suspects they have reasonable suspicion are in the country illegally.
But the high court’s ruling left the window open for future legal challenges if police engaged in discriminatory practices.