Sheriff Arpaio takes the stand in civil-rights case

The self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" took the stand Tuesday in the class-action lawsuit against him and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, defending his department's policies as part of "crime suppression."

Joe Arpaio, the brash and outspoken Arizona sheriff known for forcing inmates to wear pink underwear, live in tents and listen to Frank Sinatra, took the stand in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The suit claims the sheriff and his deputies racially profiled Latinos as part of a systemic policy of discrimination in an attempt to root out illegal immigrants. The plaintiffs are not seeking money -- but want the sheriff to agree to an outside monitor and admit he engaged in a pattern of discrimination.

Arpaio denies the charges.

"We should never racial profile," he said Tuesday on the stand. "I'm against anyone racial profiling."

He said Tuesday that his focus is on reducing crime but that he also believes it's important to do all they can as a department to reduce the number of illegal immigrants entering the country.

The Maricopa department is mindful that a judgment against him in this case would make it easier for the federal government to win its broader and more serious civil rights case -- and effectively take over the department's policy. It could also nullify hundreds of existing cases against Hispanic defendants, and allow supposed victims of the department's behavior to recover monetary damages.

Arpaio's attorney has said that race had "nothing to do" with the sheriff's patrols.

One problem for Arpaio in this week's case could end up being his own words. Over his 20-year career, the sheriff's been accused of making caustic remarks about Latinos and illegal immigrants. The plaintiffs' attorney plans to use those statements against him.

The trial will be decided by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow. The judge said in a December ruling that some of Arpaio's public statements could be interpreted as endorsements of racial profiling.

Politically, though, the outcome of the case is unlikely to jeopardize the sheriff's reelection campaign. First elected in 1992, "Sheriff Joe" continued the hard-nosed style typical of many previous Arizona sheriffs. He instituted female chain gangs. He boasted of feeding inmates on less than $2 a day. He banned Playboy and sexually explicit magazines and got rid of all entertainment TV programming other than news and the Disney Channel. He expanded the jails to include a "tent city" and vowed never to turn an inmate away because of overcrowding. In 2008, he hosted a reality TV show called "Smile...You're Under Arrest!" in which suspects with outstanding warrants were tricked into presenting themselves for arrest.

This week's case revolves around something known as suppression or saturation patrols, which is a technique police use in high-crime areas where they stop all vehicles, even for seemingly insignificant crimes such as a broken tail light or littering, to create a "zero-tolerance" setting.

The lawsuit alleges Arpaio assigned multiple deputies to Hispanic neighborhoods -- based not on actual crime stats but racially motivated citizen complaints.

An ACLU analyst testified last week that Latinos in Phoenix are stopped more often and are held up for a longer amount of time -- and claimed the practice is therefore discriminatory. However under cross examination, he admitted his data didn't account for older model cars that are often driven by Latino suspects -- which could result in more stops -- nor did he account for the language barrier which could lead to longer stops if a translator were brought in. He was also forced to admit, on average, Hispanic stops only lasted two minutes longer than stops for non-Hispanics.

The trial is scheduled to last six days and will be decided by the judge, not a jury.