PHOENIX – Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's anti-illegal immigration patrols are taking center stage in federal court in Phoenix.
A lawyer for a group of Latinos who filed a civil lawsuit against his department said in opening statements Thursday that the evidence will show that Arpaio and his deputies racially profiled Hispanics.
"It's our view that the problem starts at the top," attorney Stan Young said.
Tim Casey, who is defending Arpaio, said the patrols were properly planned out and executed. He said they exceeded police standards. He said, "race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the traffic stops."
The plaintiffs aren't seeking money damages. They want a declaration that Arpaio's office racially profiles and an order that requires it to make changes to prevent what they said is discriminatory policing.
The lawsuit filed by a handful of Latinos 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. Although not involved in Thursday's case, a DOJ lawyer leading the agency's civil rights case watched the trial.
Arpaio was not expected in court Thursday.
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 Arpaio's officers 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 inquire about their immigration status.
"He is not free to say whatever he wants," said Dan Pochoda, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, one of the groups that pushed the lawsuit against Arpaio. "He will be called as a witness."
If Arpaio loses the civil case, he won't face jail time or fines.
At a late June hearing, Casey said the sheriff wanted the trial so he could prove his critics wrong and remove the stigma that the racial profiling allegation carries. "What we want is resolution," Casey said.
The DOJ lawsuit makes many of the same racial profiling allegations, but goes further to say that Arpaio's office retaliated against its critics, punished Latino jail inmates with limited English skills for speaking Spanish and failed to adequately investigate a large number of sex-crimes cases.
No trial date in that case has been set.
Arpaio has said the DOJ lawsuit is a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration as a way to court Latino voters in a presidential election year.
DOJ officials say the department began its initial civil rights inquiry of Arpaio's office during the Bush administration and notified the sheriff of its formal investigation a few months after Obama took office.
Arpaio has staked his reputation on immigration enforcement and, in turn, won support and financial contributors from people across the country who helped him build a $4 million campaign war chest.
The patrols have brought allegations that Arpaio himself ordered some of them not based on reports of crime but letters from Arizonans who complained about people with dark skin congregating in an area or speaking Spanish.
Some of the people who filed the lawsuit were stopped by deputies in regular patrols, while others were stopped in his special immigration sweeps. During the sweeps, deputies flood an area of a city -- in some cases, heavily Latino areas -- over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.
Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by his office since January 2008, according to figures provided by Arpaio's office, which hasn't conducted any of the special patrols since October.
Arpaio has repeatedly said people who are pulled over in his patrols were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that officers found that many of them were illegal immigrants.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow has issued rulings against Arpaio earlier in the case.
In December, he barred Arpaio's deputies who are enforcing Arizona's 2005 immigrant smuggling law from detaining people based solely on the suspicion that they're in the country illegally. Arpaio has appealed that decision.
The judge also has reminded plaintiffs' attorneys what they need to prove to make their claim of systematic discrimination. At a March hearing, he told them that to back up the racial profiling allegations, they must show Arpaio's office had a policy that was intentionally discriminatory.
The plaintiffs' attorneys say they plan to do so, in part, by focusing on their allegation that Arpaio launched some patrols based on racially charged citizen complaints that alleged no actual crimes.
Separate from the two lawsuits that allege racial profiling, a federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.