A US federal judge ruled on Friday that the office of the US’ self-proclaimed toughest sheriff systematically singled out Latinos in its trademark immigration patrols, marking the first finding by a court that the agency racially profiles people.
The ruling marks a thorough repudiation of the immigration patrols that have made Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio a national political figure. It backs up allegations that critics have made for years that Arpaio’s officers violate the constitutional rights of Latinos by relying on race in their immigration enforcement.
Known for jailing inmates in tents and making prisoners wear pink underwear, Arpaio started doing immigration enforcement in 2006 as Arizona voters grew frustrated with the state’s role as the nation’s busiest illegal entryway.
US District Judge Murray Snow also ruled Arpaio’s deputies unreasonably prolonged the detentions of people who were pulled over.
The ruling represents a victory for those who pushed the lawsuit.
They were not seeking monetary damages but rather a declaration that Arpaio’s office engages in racial profiling and an order that would require it to make policy changes.
“For too long the sheriff has been victimizing the people he’s meant to serve with his discriminatory policy,” said Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Right Project.
The sheriff, who has repeatedly denied the allegations, will not face jail time or fines as a result of the ruling.
Arpaio, who turns 81 next month, was elected in November last year to his sixth consecutive term as sheriff in Arizona’s most populous county.
A small group of Latinos alleged in their lawsuit that Arpaio’s deputies pulled over some vehicles only to make immigration status checks. The group asked Snow to issue injunctions barring the sheriff’s office from discriminatory policing and the judge ruled that more remedies could be ordered in the future.
The group also accused the sheriff of ordering some immigration patrols not based on reports of crime but rather on letters and e-mails from Arizonans who complained about people with dark skin congregating in an area or speaking Spanish. The group’s attorneys said that Arpaio sent thank-you notes to some people who wrote the complaints.
The sheriff said his deputies only stop people when they think a crime has been committed and that he was not the person who picked the location of the patrols. His lawyers also said there was nothing wrong with the thank-you notes.
The ruling used Arpaio’s own words in interviews, news conferences and press releases against him as he trumpeted his efforts in cracking down on immigrants.
“Ours is an operation, whether it’s the state law or the federal, to go after illegals, not the crime first, that they happen to be illegals,” the ruling quoted Arpaio as saying. “My program, my philosophy is a pure program. You go after illegals. I’m not afraid to say that. And you go after them and you lock them up.”