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

October 4, 2013

The ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona and Covington and Burling, LLP are representing plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Maricopa County for racial discrimination against Latinos. 

The lawsuit charges that Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (“MCSO”) have unlawfully instituted a pattern and practice of targeting Latino drivers and passengers in Maricopa County during traffic stops.  MCSO’s practices discriminate on the basis of race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and have resulted in prolonged traffic stops and baseless extended detentions, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In its zeal to rid the community of persons that it believes are undocumented immigrants, MCSO has violated the civil rights of countless U.S. citizens and lawful immigrants.

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Plaintiff Profiles

Manuel Ortega Melendres

Manuel Ortega Melendres is a legal visitor to the United States who possessed a valid visa. On September 26, 2007, he was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped by officers from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Cave Creek, Arizona. MCSO was conducting an operation targeted at day laborers.  Although the officer who stopped him claimed that the reason he pulled the vehicle over was because the driver was speeding, the driver, who was a Caucasian male, was not given a citation or taken into custody.  The officer instead asked Mr. Ortega and the other Latino passengers to produce identification.  Though Mr. Ortega provided identification, he was nonetheless arrested. Mr. Ortega spent four hours in a cell in the county jail. Eventually he was taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official, who confirmed that he had proper documentation to be in the United States.  After an hours-long ordeal, Mr. Ortega was released. 

Manuel Nieto & Velia Meraz

In March 2008, Manuel Nieto and Velia Meraz, who are brother and sister, were stopped during a sweep in North Phoenix after they had witnessed the MCSO detaining two Latino men at a gas station.  After pulling into the gas station, the MCSO deputy ordered Ms. Meraz and Mr. Nieto to leave.  They left the gas station, but were subsequently pulled over by MCSO deputies in front of their family business at gunpoint.  While Mr. Nieto called 911, MCSO deputies pulled him out of his car and threw him against it.  Family members who were present at the time informed the officers that both Mr. Nieto and Ms. Meraz are U.S. citizens. MCSO ran Mr. Nieto’s identification and then released both of them without a citation or any apology.  

David and Jessika Rodriguez

David and Jessika Rodriguez, along with their two young children, were off-roading near Lake Bartlett in December 2007. As they were leaving the preserve, they were stopped and ticketed by MCSO for driving on a closed road. But several other drivers who were not Latino and driving on the same stretch of the road were allowed to leave with only a warning. During the stop, the MCSO deputy demanded to see Mr. Rodriguez’s Social Security card even though he had produced his Arizona driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.  Mr. Rodriguez eventually relented and provided the deputy with his Social Security number so that he and his family could leave in peace. As the Rodriguezes drove to the exit of the preserve, they were able to stop and speak with other drivers and confirm that not one of them had been given a citation. The Rodriguezes were treated unfairly because they are Latino.  The Rodriguezes are U.S. citizens.  

Expert Data

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 Sheriffs 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. 

Dr. 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 will be submitting 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, Sheriff’s 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.

For more information about the Department of Justice’s case: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/May/12-crt-602.html 

For more information visit the ACLU of Arizona’s Immigrants’ Rights page: http://acluaz.org/issues/immigrant-rights

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