Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Ortega Melendres, et al. v. Arpaio, et al.

Location: Arizona
Status: Closed (Judgment)
Last Update: September 13, 2017

What's at Stake

This is a class action lawsuit filed in 2007 in which, following a three-week trial, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) was found to have engaged in racial profiling and unlawful traffic stops of Latinos.

Following the trial over a pattern of unlawful practices by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the MCSO during immigration sweeps and traffic stops, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow issued a sweeping decision finding that that Arpaio and his agency had relied on racial profiling and illegal detentions to target Latinos.

UPDATE/October 2, 2013: Judge Snow issued an order mandating necessary changes by Arpaio and his agency to prevent continued misconduct and safeguard the community from future violations of their constitutional rights.

In addition to the appointment of a monitor to keep tabs on the MCSO's behavior, the court insisted upon audio and video recording of all traffic stops, increased training for and monitoring of sheriff's office employees and the implementation of comprehensive record keeping. Officers will also be required to radio in the basis for each traffic stop before making contact with the people in the vehicle. ACLU continues to keep a vigilant eye on the process to help protect Maricopa County’s Latino community from further discriminatory treatment by the MCSO or Arpaio.

UPDATE/May 13, 2016: A federal court found Arpaio and his top deputies in contempt for repeatedly violating court orders to stop racially profiling Latinos as part of unlawful enforcement operations targeting immigrants. The ruling stems from the ACLU's lawsuit. The civil contempt-of-court hearings arose after Arpaio and his top deputies repeatedly flouted the court’s orders. Judge Snow wrote in May 2016 that "the Court finds that the Defendants have engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith with respect to the Plaintiff class and the protection of its rights. They have demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of the Court, as well as an intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct…”

Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said: "The court has found that Sheriff Arpaio intentionally and repeatedly violated federal court orders. His recalcitrance ends here. Strong remedies are needed to protect the community’s rights, starting with internal investigations that root out and punish misconduct. Willing or not, the sheriff will be made to comply with the law."

More about this case:

Dr. Ralph Taylor, a criminal justice expert, author, researcher and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, is an expert witness who has analyzed racial and ethnic patterns in traffic stops made by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. His findings support the plaintiffs’ claims that MCSO is engaged in a pattern of racial profiling and unlawful detention.

Taylor’s statistical analysis shows that during Arpaio’s “crime suppression sweeps,” or saturation patrols, Latinos were stopped at higher rates in comparison to non-saturation patrol days. Some of those findings include:

  • MCSO officers were significantly more likely to stop Latino persons on saturation patrol days in comparison to days when such operations were not taking place.
  • MCSO officers assigned to work saturation patrol operations were 46% to 53.7% more likely to stop Latino persons than officers not involved in the saturation patrol on those days
  • The length of time MCSO officers took to complete a traffic stop was about 21% to 25% longer when at least one of the persons stopped was Latino.
  • Taylor’s analysis was shown to be highly statistically significant, meaning that the chances of obtaining the results by chance would be less than one in a thousand.

Evidence of Racial Discrimination

Plaintiffs submitted hundreds of pages of evidence that show that the sheriff acted on racially charged citizen complaints and requests for operations that he forwarded to his senior staff. These complaints criticized people based on little more than the color of their skin or the fact that they were speaking Spanish. In addition, deputies regularly circulated racially charged emails about Latinos. These and other actions created an agency culture that encouraged discrimination and permitted racial bias to flourish.

Read some of the discriminatory emails sent to Sheriff Arpaio:

  • “If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin! Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegal who are here ILLEGALLY […] They bring their unclean, disrespectful, integrity-less, law breaking selves here […] I am begging you to come over to the 29thSt/Greenway Pkwy area and round them all up!...They crawl around here all day and night.” Constituent letter, June 19, 2008
  • “There was not an employee in sight, or within hearing, who spoke English as a first language—to my dismay. You might want to check this out.” Constituent letter, August 1, 2008
  • “DO THE MESA, AZ SWEEP!!! IT NEEDS IT TERRIBYLY!!! The Mesa, AZ police chief drags his feet… add the fact that the head of Mesa’s police union is a Hispanic.” “Sheriff Joe… SWEEP MESA, SWEEP CHANDLER, SWEEP S.E. CHANDLER, SWEEP GUADALUPE (again), SWEEP CAVE CREEK (and the church HIDING THEM), SWEEP EVERYWHERE!!!” Constituent letter, May 24, 2008

Department of Justice Lawsuit

In May 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against MCSO claiming discriminatory law enforcement actions against Latinos who are frequently stopped, detained and arrested on the basis of race, color, or national origin; discriminatory jail practices against Latino inmates with limited English skills; and illegal retaliation against their perceived critics.

More information about the Department of Justice’s case

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