PHOENIX (CN) – The federal judge presiding over a civil rights class action against Sheriff Joe Arpaio kicked off the trial Thursday by saying he would base his decision on “facts as they now stand, not as they did two years ago,” though discovery in the case ended in 2010.
Five class representatives claim Arpaio and his Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office target Latinos by racial profiling. Arpaio, 80, is seeking a sixth term in November.
In opening remarks to U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow, plaintiffs’ attorney Stanley Young told the packed courtroom that a “fundamental value of our nation is equal protection of the law,” and that his clients’ “goal is to ensure that the actions of the MCSO complies with the constitution.”
The five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed more than 4 years ago, were detained by sheriff’s deputies during “so-called ‘crime suppression sweeps'” to enforce Arizona’s human-smuggling law by “using pretextual and unfounded stops, racially motivated questioning, searches and other mistreatment,” according to the complaint.
Tim Casey, representing Arpaio, said his clients “believe the charges of the plaintiffs and their lawyers are unfair.”
“There are two sides to every story. If the truth were anything like what the plaintiffs are suggesting, it would be a very disturbing picture,” Casey said. “Race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the traffic stops.”
Most testimony Thursday focused on the findings of expert Ralph Taylor, a Temple University professor, who found that Hispanic names were 34 to 40 percent more likely to be checked by a deputy during a “saturation patrol” then non-Hispanic names.
“If a name was checked by officers during a saturation patrol it was highly likely the name was Hispanic,” Taylor said.
Since the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office does not track the race or ethnicity of people stopped, Taylor said, he used Census data to determine the likelihood that a surname checked was Hispanic or non-Hispanic.
Taylor said he looked at more than 108,000 traffic incidents recorded by the Sheriff’s Office between Jan. 1, 2007 and Oct. 31, 2009, and found that Hispanics experienced a 22 percent, or 2.6 minute, longer stop length then non-Hispanics.
Tom Liddy, a lawyer for defendants, questioned Taylor’s practice of selecting what data to be analyzed.
“Is it possible that there was a significant number of traffic stops that you didn’t receive?” Liddy asked. “If the deputy pulled someone over, ran the plate, and did not use radio … would it be reflected?”
Taylor said that if there was no name listed in the data he was provided by the plaintiffs, he did not include that incident in his report.
“Could that piece of information be interesting to anyone, doctor?” Liddy asked.
Taylor conceded that “yes,” it could be.
Taylor claimed there were some variables, like such as deputies’ actions during the stops, and the socio-economic status of the person stopped, that may have contributed to longer or shorter stop times, or the possibility that a person was stopped if he or she could not afford to repair their vehicle to keep it up to code.
The court also heard testimony from David Vasquez, a 47-year-old IT specialist from Mesa, who said he was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy in June 2008 for a cracked windshield.
“The first question he asked me is, ‘Do you speak English’?” Vasquez said. “I just found it funny that he asked me that question because I felt like he was singling me out.
“He said he pulled me over for a cracked windshield that doesn’t impair my visibility,” Vasquez said. “I wouldn’t say it was upsetting so much as being profiled.”
Vasquez said he did not complain to any agencies of his treatment after the incident. Vasquez is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Arpaio is expected to testify next week. The plaintiffs are not seeking money damages, but an injunction to stop the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office from exceeding its authority, and from engaging in racial discrimination.