Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks during a news conference at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Training Center Auditorium in Phoenix, Arizona July 17, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)
Mexican tourist Manuel Ortega Melendres was a passenger in a car pulled over by deputies of hard-line Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio during a sweep for illegal immigrants, ostensibly because the vehicle's driver was speeding.
But moments later Melendres was arrested, despite having a valid visa and producing identification, while the vehicle's white driver was neither cited nor taken into custody.
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Melendres' ordeal in 2007 is now at the heart of a class action lawsuit to be heard in federal court in Phoenix beginning Thursday in a case that will test whether Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio can target the undocumented in immigration "sweeps" without racially profiling Latino citizens.
The suit contends that Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," and his officers violate the constitutional rights of both Hispanic citizens and legal immigrants alike in their zeal to crack down on people they believe to be illegal immigrants in the Phoenix valley.
"At trial we will prove that Sheriff Arpaio's fixation on immigration enforcement and his equating of, quote, 'illegal' with 'Latino' has resulted in systemic civil rights violations," said Cecillia Wang, director of the Immigrants Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The sheriff's office "has recklessly set up a dragnet for undocumented immigrants, but in the process has violated the rights of countless Latino residents of the county, U.S. citizens and immigrants alike who cannot go about their lawful business without fear of being detained and interrogated during a pretextual traffic stop," she added.
The non-jury bench trial, which will run from July 19 to August 2, focuses attention once again on Arizona, which claimed headlines last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key element of the state's crackdown on illegal immigrants requiring police to investigate those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.
Supporters said the law was needed because the U.S. federal government had failed to secure the porous southwest border with Mexico. President Barack Obama's administration challenged it in court, saying the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government sole authority over immigration policy.
Arpaio, who has become the public face of local efforts to enforce tough immigration laws, denies the allegations and is to fight them in the U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
Lisa Allen, a spokeswoman for Arpaio's office, said that neither it nor its attorneys would comment "until after the case is decided."
LITTLE IMPACT ON ARPAIO
The lawsuit's plaintiffs include four other Hispanics stopped by deputies and the Somos America immigrants' rights coalition. It was later expanded to include all Latino drivers stopped by the office since 2007.
Arpaio, who turned 80 last month, faces a separate, broader lawsuit lodged by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work, and a disregard for minority rights by him and county officials.
That suit contends Arpaio's office routinely violates the First Amendment rights to free speech of political opponents by retaliating against them with unsubstantiated complaints and lawsuits and by having them unlawfully arrested.
But despite mounting legal problems, any win by the plaintiffs in the Melendres suit is unlikely to harm Arpaio's chances as he seeks re-election to a sixth term in November, analysts said.
"More than anything else, the conflict with the (Justice Department) and this civil suit are seen by his supporters as evidence he is endeavoring to combat illegal immigration and as a result is being persecuted by the Obama Administration and liberals," said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Texas.
"At this point I do not see these suits as adversely affecting his re-election efforts," Jones added.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs hope a win would bring about broad changes in the way the sheriff's office conducts its policing in Maricopa County, where nearly a third of the 3.9 million residents are Latino.
Attorney Andrew C. Byrnes said the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, only injunctive relief to put a stop to what he said was "racial profiling" by Arpaio's deputies.
Victory would lead to the implementation of "generally accepted police practices" to avoid racial profiling, including "training, monitoring and supervision" of deputies, and the collection of data detailing the ethnic group of those stopped.