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PHOENIX – Today, five individuals and Somos America, a Latino community-based coalition, sued Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office (MCSO) and Maricopa County, charging that they or their members were unlawfully stopped and mistreated by law enforcement because they are Latino. The class action lawsuit - which builds upon a complaint filed last December - is before the U.S. District Court in Arizona.
The amended complaint was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arizona, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and lead counsel Steptoe & Johnson LLP. The lawsuit charges 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.
"In this country we value fairness and equality. There's nothing fair or equal about armed deputies pulling people over and treating them differently because of the color of their skin," said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Dan Pochoda. "Sheriff Arpaio does not have the right to profile people because they look Latino regardless of their immigration status. His job is to uphold the law, not violate people's rights."
Sheriff Arpaio has made no secret that he believes physical appearance alone is sufficient reason to stop and question individuals regarding their immigration status. Arpaio has also touted the fact that he has directed his deputies to target people they perceive as immigrants in so-called "crime suppression sweeps" in Latino neighborhoods and areas where Latinos work as day laborers.
MCSO's rampant racial profiling has created a culture of fear in Maricopa County. Latinos in the community have good reason to worry that a trip to the grocery store or to work will end with interrogation by armed officers on the roadside and possible incarceration at the county jail.
One plaintiff in the coalition's lawsuit, Manuel Nieto, Jr., a U.S. citizen, was unlawfully stopped and detained in front of his family's auto repair shop after police heard him listening to music in Spanish.
"It was very humiliating to be handcuffed in front of my family's business, in front of customers and neighbors," said Nieto. "It's not a crime to be Latino or listen to a Spanish-language radio station but you wouldn't know that by the way Sheriff Joe and his posse treat people."
David J. Bodney, an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson LLP, said, "At the sheriff's hand, an atmosphere of fear and hostility has swept across the valley. It takes courage and commitment for these individual plaintiffs to come forward in the name of equal justice under law to stop this discriminatory treatment for everyone who lives here."
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 far too often results in the harassment of Latinos. Many complain that the sheriff's obsession with enforcing federal immigration law has come at the expense of his office pursuing serious criminal matters.
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 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.
"Police should not be in the business of acting as immigration agents; everyone's safety is jeopardized when they do," said MALDEF staff attorney Kristina Campbell. "In Maricopa County, as in other parts of the country, when local police try to take on the job of being immigration officers, immigrants and their family members often get the message that they should fear coming forward if they are the victim or witness of a crime."
Increased attempts by local police to involve themselves in federal immigration law enforcement have been accompanied by a troubling rise in complaints of racial profiling across the nation.
"As charges of discrimination have mounted, Sheriff Arpaio has only dug in his heels, and the federal government has thus far done nothing to rein him in," said Robin Goldfaden, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "Unfortunately, court intervention is necessary for the Constitution to be upheld."
Lawyers on the case, Ortega Melendres, et al. v. Arpaio, et al., include Goldfaden and Mónica M. Ramírez of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project; Pochoda of the ACLU of Arizona; Campbell and Nancy Ramirez of MALDEF; and Bodney, Peter Kozinets, Karen Hartman-Tellez and Isaac Hernandez of Steptoe & Johnson LLP.
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