By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008
A coalition of Hispanic and labor groups in Phoenix accused Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of racial profiling yesterday, alleging in a federal lawsuit that one of the nation's largest sheriff's departments is violating the civil rights of nonwhite U.S. citizens in seeking to arrest illegal immigrants.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed the suit, also said the U.S. Justice Department and federal immigration agencies have failed to stop civil rights abuses in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, the state capital.
"As charges of discrimination have mounted, Sheriff Arpaio has only dug in his heels, and the federal government has thus far done nothing to rein him in," said Robin Goldfaden, a lawyer with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "Unfortunately, court intervention is necessary for the Constitution to be upheld."
Capt. Paul Chagolla, a spokesman for the sheriff's department, said a move by the groups to seek class-action status of a case filed in December was "old news." He said the 4,000-employee department would not try a case in the media and would not alter its operations.
"We do not racially profile," Chagolla said. "The sheriff will continue to do his job, and his deputy sheriffs will continue to do their jobs enforcing the law in the state of Arizona."
At issue are a series of sweeps, often conducted in Hispanic neighborhoods, in which sheriff's deputies and volunteers pulled over cars and stopped people on the street in a search for illegal immigrants and criminals. Critics allege the sweeps targeted individuals based on their physical appearance, such as dark skin or ethnicity.
One plaintiff, Manuel Nieto Jr., a U.S. citizen, alleged that he was unlawfully handcuffed in front of customers and neighbors by his family's auto repair shop after police heard him listening to music in Spanish.
"It's not a crime to be Latino or listen to a Spanish-language radio station but you wouldn't know that by the way Sheriff Joe and his posse treat people," Nieto said.
"There's nothing fair or equal about armed deputies pulling people over and treating them differently because of the color of their skin," said Dan Pochoda, the legal director of the ACLU of Arizona.
The lawsuit escalates a battle over immigration enforcement tactics in Arizona that could echo nationally during an election year. Similar lawsuits over the last two years have targeted border sheriffs in El Paso, and in Otero County, N.M., who assigned deputies to check the immigration status of people at checkpoints, during routine traffic stops, or in their homes.
Since signing up for a U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement program in April 2007 that trains local law enforcement agents to enforce immigration laws, Maricopa deputies have found that 14,830 individuals arrested on state charges turned out to be in the country illegally. In the course of other duties, deputies discovered and arrested another 1,145 illegal immigrants, Chagolla said.
But Arpaio, a former D.C. police officer and federal narcotics agent who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," has also drawn controversy.
Reelected since 1992 through such popular stunts as building a tent city jail with 2,000 inmates in the desert and forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear, he has also drawn criticism from local officials such as the police chief of Mesa and the mayor of Phoenix. In April, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon (D) asked U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to launch a federal civil rights investigation, citing the department's "discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests" of Hispanic people. The mayor has received no official response, a spokesman said.