PHOENIX (CN) - A two-hour hearing in a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio began Thursday with a federal judge warning, "This is not a press conference," and with Tim Casey, representing co-defendant Maricopa County, conceding that its Sheriff's Office has "no inherent authority to enforce federal civil immigration law."
U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow heard arguments on whether Arpaio's enforcement of immigration and human-smuggling law resulted in racial profiling and unreasonable searches of five Latinos.
Arpaio's office hired Kris Kobach, a known "proponent of the inherent authority theory, to train MCSO deputies on immigration enforcement" in February 2010, according to lead plaintiff Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres' supplemental brief.
The county's attorney Casey told Judge Snow that deputies need only one element of the law to "have a reasonable suspicion that human smuggling is occurring."
Snow asked, "If you'll fix my doorknob, I'll take you to lunch - does the MCSO have the right to detain me?"
Casey replied, "I don't think that a reasonable officer would do that." He said that one element of the law requires that people be transported for a commercial purpose.
The five plaintiffs in the 4-year-old lawsuit were detained by sheriff's deputies during "so-called 'crime suppression sweeps'" to enforce the state's human-smuggling law by "using pretextual and unfounded stops, racially motivated questioning, searches and other mistreatment," according to their complaint.
The plaintiffs claim these sweeps "resulted in almost no arrests under the human smuggling statute."
"Claiming authority under a limited agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that actually prohibits the practices challenged here, defendants have launched a series of massive so-called 'crime suppression sweeps' that show a law enforcement agency operating well beyond the bounds of the law," the complaint states. "During these sweeps, which have shown no signs of abating since defendants began them in September 2007, large numbers of MCSO officers and volunteer 'posse' members under defendants' direction and control have targeted Latino persons for investigation of immigration status, using pretextual and unfounded stops, racially motivated questioning, searches and other mistreatment, and often baseless arrests. Defendants' pattern and practice of racial profiling goes beyond these sweeps to include widespread, day-to-day targeting and mistreatment of persons who appear to be Latino."
They add: "Defendants have engaged in a widespread pattern and practice of racial profiling and other racially and ethnically discriminatory treatment in an illegal, improper and unauthorized attempt to 'enforce' federal immigration laws against large numbers of Latino persons in Maricopa County without regard for actual citizenship or valid immigration status."
Lead plaintiff Ortega claims he was handcuffed, taken to a holding cell, and detained for 9 hours until his U.S. visa was verified by an ICE agent. Ortega was a passenger in a truck that was pulled over, allegedly for speeding.
Plaintiffs David and Jessica Rodriguez say they were stopped and cited by a deputy while traveling down a washed-out road. They say they were asked to provide documentation while white drivers stopped on the road were not.
Plaintiffs Velia Meraz and Manuel Nieto Jr., both U.S. citizens, say sheriff's deputies followed them to their family business after a deputy threatened to charge them with disorderly conduct when they refused to leave a gas station. They were not cited after they provided deputies with identification.
Stanley Young, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Snow that while Arpaio has the right to enforce state law, "he doesn't have the authority to enforce state law in a racially discriminatory manner."
Arpaio "has explicitly set forth as part of his public persona that he wants to go after illegal immigration," Young said.
Ortega was stopped outside a church near a house that was alleged to be a drop house, but the sheriff's office "sent out officers two days before [the arrest], and there was nothing," Snow said.
Young claimed that Arpaio is enforcing the law in a "racially discriminatory manner," and that he often uses citizen complaints to "pursue his obsession with illegal immigration."
Young cited letters Arpaio received complaining of Spanish-speakers at McDonald's in Sun Valley, Mesa, and Queen Creek that resulted in "crime sweeps" in the areas.
The U.S. Justice Department last week found that Arpaio and his deputies "engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of law enforcement and jail activities that discriminate against Latinos," and have adopted a "chronic culture of disregard for basic legal and constitutional obligations."
The plaintiffs seek an injunction to stop the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office from exceeding its authority, and from engaging in race discrimination.
Snow said he will issue a ruling in a day or two.