Sheriff Joe Arpaio Goes to Court in Latinos' Discrimination Suit

Class-action suit accuses conservative folk icon and his Arizona office of racial profiling.

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Sheriff Joe's antics have landed him in hot water in more than just the court of public opinion.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose birther investigations and unorthodox methods have earned him national recognition, went to trial Thursday in a case that alleges that his office racially discriminates against Latinos.

[Birthers Back: Obama Papers 'Undoubtedly Fraudulent,' Arizona Sheriff Claims]

The class-action civil lawsuit, Melendres v. Arpaio, was brought by Latino defendants who claim the sheriff and his department systematically target Latinos in its sweeps to pick up illegal immigrants.

"Sheriff Joe's approach to his job, which includes him thinking he should be an immigration agent, has caused massive civil rights violations," says Omar Jadwat, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs. "In essence, the goal of the lawsuit is to put an end to racial profiling in Maricopa County; the plaintiffs in this case aren't seeking money damages."

The plaintiffs, all legally in the United States, say the sheriff's office detained them too long or with excessive force because they were Latinos. The primary plaintiff is Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the U.S. legally when he was arrested and held for nine hours during an operation aimed at local day laborers.

At issue is not just the alleged discrimination, which Arpaio has denied, but also the sheriff's office's alleged emphasis on immigration, which is not the jurisdiction of local law enforcment.

"There's never been a priority to crack down on immigration. It's a federal law," says Jerry Cobb, a public information officer for Maricopa County Attorney's Office. "We don't prosecute under federal law, we prosecute under state law."

The patrols the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office conducts are the crux of the issue, because they both hint at immigration priorities and possible racial profiling.

"One of the practices that will be focused on during the trial is what [Arpaio] calls saturation patrols," Jadwat says. "Basically going into neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods were targeted after Joe got letters essentially saying, 'There are too many Mexicans in this area. You should do a sweep here.'"

The plaintiffs' attorney will attempt to prove the patrols are evidence of institutional discrimination, and Thursday's hearing began with expert witness Ralph Taylor, who testified that his statistical analysis of thousands of traffic stops by the sheriff's office found that Latinos were much more likely to be stopped and to have their names checked.

The trial is expected to last two to three weeks. But Arpaio and his office are facing another similar lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department for unconstitutional discriminatory law enforcement against Latinos. It too seeks no monetary damages, but to "fix the problems identified in our investigation and ensure that the necessary policies, practices, and oversight are in place so that MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States," according to Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

Arpaio has been a sheriff of Maricopa County since 1992. He's known for his office's offbeat policies, such as requiring that inmates where pink underwear, housing them in tents, and putting them in "chain gangs" to perform public works projects. His office also conducted a nine-month investigation into President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate, and announced this week that the investigation revealed the document to be "undoubtedly fraudulent."

Seth Cline is a reporter with U.S. News and World Report. Contact him at scline@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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