MALDEF Sues Maricopa County Sheriff For Racial Profiling And Civil Rights Violations

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JULY 25, 2008 - Last week, MALDEF filed an amended complaint in a class action lawsuit against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio alleging that Arpaio’s Sheriff’s Office has engaged in a widespread practice of illegal “crime suppression sweeps” based on egregious racial profiling. The lawsuit seeks to stop Arpaio, who styles himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” and his deputies from engaging in unconstitutional searches and seizures of U.S. citizens based on their Latino heritage or appearance.

In January 2007, Maricopa County, Arizona and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which are also named in the lawsuit, entered into a “287(g)” agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to allow specially-trained county officers to enforce certain federal immigration regulations. The agreement subjects Arpaio and his officers to federal regulations that explicitly prohibit racial profiling. The ICE guidelines state that officers “can only use 287(g) authority when people are taken into custody as a result of violating state or local criminal law. Police cannot randomly ask for a person’s immigration status or conduct immigration raids,” and that officers may only “use their authority when dealing with someone who is suspected of a state crime that is more than a traffic offense.”

Despite these restrictions, which attempt to safeguard the civil rights of law-abiding U.S. citizens, Arpaio and his officers have engaged in a massive operation in which Latino-looking individuals are stopped, interrogated about their immigration status and even jailed until their paperwork can be validated. These “investigations” are often based on a routine traffic stop – illegal under federal law – or, worse, for no apparent reason whatsoever.

One of the named plaintiffs, who holds a valid U.S. visa and presented it when police stopped the car in which he was riding, was handcuffed, jailed and held for nine hours with no food, water, Miranda warning or explanation for his arrest. Another plaintiff, a U.S. citizen, was followed to his family’s business by four police vehicles after being seen listening to a Spanish-language radio station. He was thrown against a police car and handcuffed before his father came running out and informed the officers that the family were U.S. citizens. Neither of these plaintiffs was ever accused of violating a state or local criminal law.

The actions of Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office have been widely condemned. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Arpaio for possible civil rights violations; DOJ has yet to act on this request.

“In addition to blatantly flouting the U.S. Constitution, Arpaio’s focus on federal immigration issues has come at a cost to public safety,” said Kristina Campbell, MALDEF Staff Attorney. “He has drained resources from other crime fighting and investigation units, and his discriminatory practices have undermined trust – a critical component of effective law enforcement – in the Latino community.”

The lawsuit, Melendres v. Arpaio, is currently before the U.S. District Court for Arizona. MALDEF is working jointly with Steptoe and Johnson, the ACLU of Arizona and the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund