A federal judge ruled on Friday that Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-styled "toughest sheriff in America," violated the constitutional rights of Latinos in his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow ruled that the Maricopa Country sheriff and his agency engaged in systematic racial profiling during its saturation patrols, using race and "ancestry" as factors in their decisions to stop and investigate people for suspected immigration violations. Unsurprisingly, Arpaio's attorney Tim Casey has said that the Maricopa Country Sheriff's Office (MSCO) claims that it "has never used race and will never use race in its law-enforcement decisions" and that he will appeal the decision within 30 days.
The ruling will not come as a surprise to those who have followed the aggressively nativist and racist comments and policies of Arpaio. And although Arpaio will no doubt continue to fight against claims of racial profiling, the court's decision represents a victory for civil liberties and critics of the MSCO, adding further legal weight to the case against him.
The lawsuit was bought by Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Latino man who says he has been subjected to racial profiling by the MSCO, on behalf on those who have been similarly treated. The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and pro-bono attorneys from a Bay Area law firm. Judge Snow said that "MCSO deputies were instructed that they could consider race or 'Mexican ancestry' as one factor among others in making law enforcement decisions during immigration enforcement operations." During saturation patrols, MSCO officers used traffic stops as a pretext to pull people over and question and detain them on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally.
Snow wrote in his ruling: "To the extent it uses race as a factor in arriving at reasonable suspicion or forming probable cause to stop or investigate persons of Latino ancestry for being in the country without authorization, it violates the Fourth Amendment. In addition, it violates the Plaintiff class’s right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ... The great weight of the evidence is that all types of saturation patrols at issue in this case incorporated race as a consideration into their operations, both in design and execution, the vehicles the deputies decided to stop, and in the decisions made as to whom to investigate for."
Furthermore, Snow ruled that MSCO officers had unreasonably prolonged the detention of people they had pulled over, further violating their constitutional rights. Arpaio and his deputies have now been ordered by Snow to stop checking the immigration status of people detained without state charges, to stop using race or "ancestry" as a factor in their law enforcement decisions, and to stop unconstitutionally lengthening stops. Although Casey has said that the MSCO will respect the ruling of the court and comply, given Arpaio's aggressively nativist stance towards immigration, he is not going to change the practices of his office without a fight.
The plaintiffs in the suit reportedly did not seek monetary damages from the MSCO, but rather a ruling that the office has been engaging in racial profiling in its law enforcement operations and that it must change its policies. And they have won a significant victory, with the decision adding legal weight to the case against policies that have been criticized for years. A hearing is set for June 14, where both sides will speak, in order to figure out how the rulings will be enacted. The Justice Department is also suing Arpaio for civil rights violations, including racial profiling of Latinos, in an ongoing case.
Although Casey has blamed the MSCO's violations of the law on "bad training" from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, given Arpaio's penchant for publicity it seems clear that the sheriff's office likely knew exactly what it was doing in violating the Constitution or simply did not care. It remains to be seen whether this ruling will actually result in a change in policy and practice, but given Arpaio's record and his strong opposition towards federal intervention in his practices, it will no doubt be a long hard fight. Hopefully, however, Friday's decision and a successful ruling against Arpaio in the Justice Department case will mark the beginning of the end of his regime of systematic racial profiling.