PHOENIX (AP) — A group of Latinos is arguing in federal court that Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies carried out racial profiling as part of policy of discrimination.
The civil lawsuit involving Arpaio — the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America — has put his anti-illegal immigration patrols on center stage.
Tim Casey, who is defending Arpaio, said Thursday that the patrols were properly planned out and executed. He said they exceeded police standards. "Race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the traffic stops."
Arpaio has said people pulled over were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that officers only learned afterward that many were illegal immigrants.
A lawyer for plaintiffs who argue they were victims of racial profiling said in opening statements that the evidence will show that Arpaio and his deputies discriminated against Hispanics.
"It's our view that the problem starts at the top," attorney Stan Young said.
The plaintiffs aren't seeking money damages. They want a declaration that Arpaio's office racially profiles and an order that requires the department to make changes to prevent what they said is discriminatory policing.
The lawsuit will serve as a precursor to a U.S. Justice Department's case that alleges a broader range of civil rights violations by Arpaio's office. A DOJ lawyer leading the agency's civil rights case watched the trial.
Arpaio, who didn't appear in court Thursday, is expected to be called to testify Tuesday.
For years, Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America, has vehemently denied allegations that his deputies in Arizona's most populous county racially profile Latinos in his trademark patrols.
The plaintiffs say deputies based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics who were in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could ask about their immigration status.
David Vasquez, an IT specialist from Mesa who identified himself as a Mexican American, said he and his wife were pulled over during a June 2009 sweep as the couple was headed to dinner. One of the deputies who stopped them asked Vasquez whether he spoke English, which he does.
"I just found it funny that he asked me that question because I felt like I had been singled out. I've never been asked that question," Vasquez said. He said he was following the speed limit and hadn't broken any traffic laws.
Five or 10 minutes after being pulled over, a deputy said he pulled Vasquez over because he had a crack in his windshield, which Vasquez testified wasn't blocking his view of the road.
The officer didn't write him a ticket. Vasquez now questions how the officer was able to spot the crack in the windshield given his position at an intersection.
After the officers let him go, Vasquez said it occurred to him that he was just racially profiled and told his wife: "I believe I was pulled over for being brown."
Under questioning from an Arpaio attorney, Vasquez said he didn't report the traffic stop to authorities and was contacted months later by Arpaio critics who had video-recorded the stop.
Another man who was Hispanic testified about being pulled over by a sheriff's deputy in December 2007.
David Rodriguez said the deputy pulled him over as Rodriguez and his family had just been off-roading in the area and had ended up driving on a closed road. Rodriguez said other drivers who were also on the road and who were white were let off with only a warning, while he was ticketed.