Last week the civil class action suit against the controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio began. Often referred to as “the Bull Connor of our time,” reports on the patterns of policing in Arizona where Latinos were often singled out including those who are citizens and legal immigrants will now come out in front of a judge and jury. It’s important to keep in mind that this lawsuit is separate from the Department of Justice suit, which makes many of the same allegations.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) are representing the the paintiffs. They are asserting that Arpaio’s officers have based traffic stops on the race of Latinos who were in their vehicles even when there was no probable cause to stop them. A media report from last week said that the case began when a Mexican tourist with a valid visa was stopped by deputies outside a church and detained for nine hours.
The plaintiffs lawyers are arguing that racist letters sent from Maricopa County residents encouraged Sheriff Arpaio to target Latinos. Valeria Fernandez of New America Media reported the following:
“One constituent wrote in a letter that “dark skin” is “the look of the Mexican illegals that are here illegally” and urged Arpaio to “come over to 29th Street/Greenway Parkway area and round them all up.” The area was subsequently targeted several times for immigration sweeps, according to court filings in the case.
A letter, dated May 24, 2008, requested that Arpaio conduct a sweep in the city of Mesa. Arpaio wrote a note on it saying, “I will be going into Mesa,” and sent a copy to Chief Brian Sands, in charge of crime suppression operations. Two sweeps were conducted in that city shortly afterwards.
Another letter, dated July 25, 2008, invited Arpaio to conduct more raids in the area and to specifically target day laborers. The letter reads: “Because of their demeanor, it is obvious (how) to pick out the illegals from the American citizens. I strongly request that you return to Mesa and help rid the city of this irritating problem.””
In addition to these letters, Arpaio’s own statements were used in the plaintiff’s argument including his description of raids “to go after illegals, not the crime first” and “if they look like they came from another country” as being a reason to question immigration status.
The attorney handling Arpaio’s defense is asserting that ethnicity and race play no role in how Arpaio’s office conducts its policing.
This trial is scheduled to end in early August, and Arpaio, who is running for re-election for a sixth term, is expected to testify this coming week.
Beyond the outcome of this trial, it will be interesting to see how this impacts Sheriff Arpaio’s popularity. As of May, he had over $3.4 million in is re-election fund, and he still polls well with more people favoring the job he’s doing as sheriff than those who think he’s doing a poor job. Additionally, Arpaio has continued to do well with his fundraising and pulls in most of his campaign cash from out of state donors.