PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was dealt a heavy blow when a federal judge imposed a long list of restrictions on his trademark immigration patrols, crimping his yearslong crackdown on people who are in the country illegally but not forbidding him altogether from enforcing the state's immigration laws.
A judge ruled on Friday that Arpaio's office has systematically singled out Latinos in its immigration patrols and that sheriff's deputies unreasonably prolonged the detentions of people who were pulled over, marking the first finding by a court that the agency racially profiles people. U.S. District Judge Murray Snow has forbidden the sheriff's office from using race as a factor in deciding whether to stop a vehicle with a Latino occupant and from detaining or arresting vehicle passengers who are Latino on only the suspicion that they are in the country illegally.
Cecillia Wang, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who was part of the team that pressed the case against the sheriff, said Arpaio can still enforce state immigration laws, but he can't do it in the racially discriminatory way his officers have used in the past.
Sheriff's deputies patrolling freeways in metro Phoenix can still pull over an obvious smuggling vehicle that is packed with immigrants, but his officers can't detain and arrest Latinos only because they are believed to be in the country illegally, Wang said. "The sheriff needs to wake up to the fact that he can't violate people's rights," Wang said.
Arpaio said in a statement that his lawyers will appeal the decision.
"Everybody knows me as a man who upholds the law," Arpaio said. "The law has changed. I don't agree with the court's ruling. "
The sheriff said 160 of his employees underwent training from the federal government "to enforce the immigration laws" and that training from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was erroneous. ICE had no immediate comment late Tuesday afternoon.
While the federal government trained some of Arpaio's deputies to make federal immigration arrests, Arpaio's office was eventually stripped of that power and continued his crackdown on illegal immigration by enforcing state immigration laws.
Republican state Sen. Al Melvin of Tucson defended Arpaio on Tuesday after Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix, a longtime Arpaio critic, chastised Gov. Jan Brewer and other lawmakers on the Arizona Senate floor for remaining silent on Arpaio's tactics. "I am confident that in the end he will be proven not guilty on these charges of racial profiling," Melvin said. "We don't want racial profiling, and I believe he is not guilty of that."
A group seeking a recall election against Arpaio said the ruling has drawn out more supporters for their cause. The group faces a Thursday afternoon deadline for turning in more than 335,000 valid voter signatures needed to force a recall election against the sheriff. "This is the vindication they were looking for," said recall organizer Lilia Alvarez.
Recall organizers haven't attracted deep-pocketed donors and instead are relying on volunteers rather than paid professionals to sign up supporters. They face tough odds in getting enough signatures to force an election.
Friday's ruling, which was made in a lawsuit filed by a handful of Latinos, served as a precursor to a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department, which also alleges racial profiling in Arpaio's immigration patrols. The Department of Justice, however, alleges broader civil rights violations, such as allegations that Arpaio's office retaliates against its critics and punishes Latino jail inmates with limited English skills for speaking Spanish.
David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies racial profiling and wrote a book on the subject, said the judge presiding over the Department of Justice case isn't bound by Friday's decision and that the racial profiling allegations and evidence could differ between both cases.
Still, the latest decision will loom large for participants in the Department of Justice case.
"It will likely go into the minds of the lawyers in whatever evidence they decide to present," Harris said.