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Self-proclaimed 'toughest sheriff' faces racial profiling allegations

The plaintiffs say Arpaio's officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics who were in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.

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In this May 10 photo, a defiant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio pounds his fist on the podium as he answers questions regarding the Department of Justice announcing a federal civil lawsuit against Arpaio and his department, during a news conference in Phoenix.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File

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For six years, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America has vehemently denied allegations that his deputies racially profile Latinos in his trademark immigration patrols.

Now Joe Arpaio, the sheriff in Arizona's most populous county, will have to convince a federal judge who is presiding over a lawsuit that went to trial Thursday and is expected to last until early August.

The plaintiffs say Arpaio's officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics who were in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.

"It's our view that the problem starts at the top," plaintiffs' attorney Stan Young said.

The lawsuit will serve as a bellwether for a similar yet broader civil rights lawsuit filed against Arpaio in May by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Arpaio has said the lawsuit is a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration as a way to court Latino voters in a presidential election year. Justice officials say the department began its initial civil rights inquiry of Arpaio's office during the Bush administration and notified the sheriff of its formal investigation a few months after Obama took office.

The plaintiffs, which include the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, aren't seeking money damages and instead are seeking a declaration that Arpaio's office racially profiles and an order that requires it to make changes to prevent what they said is discriminatory policing.

If Arpaio loses the civil case, he won't face jail time or fines.

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Tim Casey, who is defending Arpaio, said the patrols were properly planned out and executed. He said "race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the traffic stops."

The civil rights lawsuit makes many of the same racial profiling allegations as the other lawsuit, but goes further to say that Arpaio's office retaliated against its critics, punished Latino jail inmates with limited English skills for speaking Spanish and failed to adequately investigate a large number of sex-crimes cases. No trial date in that case has been set.

Arpaio has staked his reputation on immigration enforcement and, in turn, won support and financial contributors from people across the country who helped him build a $4 million campaign war chest.

The patrols have brought allegations that Arpaio himself ordered some of them not based on reports of crime but letters from residents who complained about people with dark skin congregating in an area or speaking Spanish.

Some of the people who filed the lawsuit were stopped by Arpaio's deputies in regular patrols, while others were stopped in his special immigration patrols known as "sweeps."

During the sweeps, deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.

Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by his office since January 2008, according to figures provided by Arpaio's office, which hasn't conducted any of the special patrols since October.

Arpaio has repeatedly said people who are pulled over in his patrols were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that officers found that many of them were illegal immigrants.


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