Arguments scheduled in Ariz. racial profiling case

December 22, 2011 - 11:35 AM

PHOENIX (AP) — A judge will hear 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 allege officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.

It's one of a mounting number of legal challenges against the embattled Sheriff's Office.

A lawsuit filed this week against the department and others alleges county employees exhibited deliberate indifference to a female inmate's medical needs and violated her constitutional rights when they kept her shackled before and after her 2009 Caesarean section.

Also this week, a man found unresponsive in a jail cell after fighting with deputies at a Phoenix jail over the weekend died after being taken off life support.

Latino activists say the death raises more questions about practices under Arpaio. An attorney for the man's family says they're exploring a possible lawsuit against the department.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow will consider possible sanctions against the sheriff's office in the lawsuit alleging racial profiling for its acknowledged destruction of some records of the patrols and a request by Arpaio's lawyers to dismiss the case.

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 U.S. Department of Justice 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.

No trial date has yet been set in the lawsuit over Arpaio's sweeps.

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.