Sheriff Joe Arpaio Racial Profiling Trial Begins, Attorney Says Policy 'Starts at the Top'

A class action accuses the sheriff and his department of racial profiling.

ByABC News
July 19, 2012, 1:53 PM

July 19, 2012— -- A civil rights trial against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-styled "America's Toughest Sheriff," began today in which Arpaio and his department stand accused of racial profiling Latinos in Maricopa County.

The class-action suit, which started with a complaint by a retired Mexican schoolteacher who was stopped in Arizona in 2007, has grown to encompass all Latinos who were stopped without probable cause from 2007 until the present.

"It's our view that the problem starts at the top," said Stan Young, an attorney for the plaintiffs, at the start of the federal trial today.

Plaintiffs are not asking for damages, but rather an apology from the department and a change in policy. If found guilty, Arpaio will not face jail time or fines.

"The point is to reform the practices of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and get them to stop racial profiling people because they're Latino," said Omar Jadwat, a senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants Rights Project, which is representing the plaintiffs. "As Americans, we expect we're not going to be stopped because of how we look and sound, that we're not going to be arrested because of our race."

Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres was visiting Arizona from Mexico and had been carrying his visa, Mexican identification and permit when the car he was riding in was pulled over by police in Queen Creek, Ariz., five years ago.

Officers informed the white driver of the vehicle that he was stopped for speeding but did not give him a citation or take him into custody.

Ortega, one of several passengers, was asked to produce identification and obliged. Even though he produced the necessary papers to prove he was in the country legally, Ortega said he was told to exit the vehicle.

"After exiting the vehicle, the officers pushed Mr. Ortega against a Sheriff's Department vehicle and patted him down over his entire body in a rough manner," court documents stated.

Officers removed everything from Ortega's pockets and kept him handcuffed for 40 minutes before he was driven to the Sheriff's Office in Cave Creek and placed in a holding cell for four hours with no explanation as to why he'd been arrested. He was not given access to an attorney, phone or food, court documents stated.

He was cuffed again and driven to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Phoenix, where he was once again placed in a holding cell for one hour, according to court documents.

An immigration official took a look at Ortega's identification and told him he was free to go.

"Mr. Ortega is frightened to walk on the street or be seen in public in Maricopa County because he fears that the sheriff's officers will come and arrest him again because he is Hispanic and does not speak English," court documents stated.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.

Arpaio is expected to take the stand at some point during the bench trial.

The U.S. Justice Department has also filed a separate suit against Arpaio, alleging discriminatory policing, use of excessive force, running the county's jail unconstitutionally and taking illegal action to silence critics.

In March, the Justice Department broke off negotiations with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office as talks broke down over having an independent authority help institute reforms.

"I will not surrender my office to the federal government," Arpaio said at the time.

A trial date has not been set.