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PHOENIX – A federal court ruled that a class action lawsuit charging that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio illegally profiled Latinos can proceed.
In July 2008, five individuals and Somos America, a Latino community-based coalition, sued Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) and Maricopa County, claiming that they or their members were unlawfully stopped and mistreated by law enforcement agents because they were Latino. The county asked the U.S. District Court in Arizona to dismiss the lawsuit in October, but today's ruling clears the way for the lawsuit to go forward.
The court recognized that Latino appearance is of "little or no use" in determining which individuals should be stopped by law enforcement seeking "illegal aliens," and that reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation does not justify questioning of drivers or passengers about immigration status.
"At stake in this case is a matter of acute public importance. Law enforcement practices that target a group based solely on the color of their skin have no place in America," said Peter Kozinets, an attorney at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Phoenix who argued the case. "This is a critical step in protecting the rights of all people in this country."
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arizona, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and lead counsel Steptoe & Johnson LLP are representing the five individuals and Somos America and charge that the policies and practices of Arpaio and the county are discriminatory and unlawfully violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Arizona Constitution. The amended lawsuit builds upon an earlier complaint filed in December 2007.
"We're encouraged that the sheriff's office's practice of targeting people simply because of the color of their skin can now be fully examined in a court of law," said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Dan Pochoda, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. "Sheriff Arpaio's discriminatory policies have no place in a free country. We do not want to live in a place where you can be stopped for no reason and asked for 'your papers please.'"
Arpaio has launched a series of so-called "crime suppression sweeps" in Maricopa County in Latino neighborhoods and in areas where Latinos work as day laborers. Maricopa County residents and local officials alike have complained that the conduct of the sheriff and his office go well beyond the scope of the MCSO's legal authority and often results in the harassment of Latinos.
"We are very pleased that this important case will be heard," said MALDEF staff attorney Kristina Campbell. "In America we value fairness and equality, but Sheriff Arpaio's sweeps have resulted in the harassment of Latinos and violated their civil rights. There's nothing fair about that."
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has denounced Sheriff Arpaio and last April, after the MCSO engaged in sweeps in the town of Guadalupe, Gordon formally requested that former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey launch a Justice Department investigation into Sheriff Arpaio's and the MCSO's "discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests" of Latino persons in Maricopa County. Gordon has also publicly stated that the sweeps are interfering with the work of undercover city police officers and federal agents.
Lawyers on the case, Ortega Melendres, et al. v. Arpaio, et al., include Mónica Ramírez of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project; Pochoda of the ACLU of Arizona; Campbell and Nancy Ramirez of MALDEF; and Kozinets, David Bodney, Karen Hartman-Tellez and Isaac Hernandez of Steptoe & Johnson LLP.
Today's ruling is online at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/gen/38709lgl20090210.html
The complaint is online at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/gen/35998lgl20080716.html
The letter from Mayor Gordon to Attorney General Mukasey is online at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/gen/35981res20080404.html
More information about the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project is online at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/index.html
More information about Steptoe & Johnson LLP is online at: www.steptoe.com