By JACQUES BILLEAUD
PHOENIX (AP) — A judge heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit that alleges racial profiling in Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigration patrols, a week after federal authorities accused the sheriff's office of a wide range of civil rights violations.
The lawsuit was filed by a handful of Latinos who claim officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics in vehicles, pulling them over without probable cause to inquire about their immigration status.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow will decide whether he will let the case go to trial or settle the dispute himself by throwing out the case or declaring that the sheriff uses racial profiling in his immigration enforcement.
The suit is among a mounting number of legal challenges against the embattled department, which faced a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report last week, then lost its federal credentials to verify the immigration status of inmates.
A lawsuit filed this week alleges county employees violated a female inmate's rights and ignored her complaints when they kept her shackled before and after her 2009 cesarean section. Meanwhile, a family said they're exploring a possible lawsuit after an inmate found unresponsive following a jail cell fight with deputies was taken off life support and died days later.
The handful of Latinos who alleged racial profiling claim officers pulled them over without probable cause to inquire about their immigration status. They are seeking a court declaration that Arpaio's office has violated their constitutional rights and must establishing protections against racial profiling.
During the patrols known as "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.
The Justice Department said last week that Arpaio's office has a pattern of racially profiling Latinos, basing immigration enforcement on racially charged citizen complaints and punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish. Arpaio faces a Jan. 4 deadline for saying whether he wants to work out an agreement to settle allegations. The Justice Department has said it's prepared to sue Arpaio and let a judge decide the matter if no agreement can be worked out.
Apart from the civil rights probe, a federal grand jury also has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is specifically examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.
Arpaio has denied the racial profiling allegations, saying people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that deputies found many of them were illegal immigrants.
Snow has previously found grounds to sanction the sheriff's office for throwing away or shredding some records of traffic stops made during the sweeps, but held off on imposing a punishment.
The judge is considering a set of possible "inferences" that either the judge or a jury would take into account as they decide the case's outcome. Under the inferences now under consideration, the judge or a jury would be able to infer that the records would have suggested officers didn't follow a zero-tolerance policy requiring them to stop all traffic offenders and that the documents would have included a higher number of immigration arrests than records documenting ordinary patrol activity.
Arpaio's lawyers have asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that those who filed the case lack standing to show they face a threat of future injury from the sweeps and people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had violated a law.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)