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Federal judge says Arizona sheriff was racially profiling

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
May 26, 2013 -- Updated 1745 GMT (0145 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "This is vindication," says immigration rights activist
  • Judge: "America's Toughest Sheriff" may not allow race or heritage to influence decisions
  • Sheriff Joe Arpaio's lawyer says his client did not racially profile
  • The sheriff's office plans to appeal the ruling

(CNN) -- Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has required prison inmates to wear pink underwear and saved taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prisons. He has, at times, forbidden convicted murderer Jodi Arias from speaking to the press.

The stern Maricopa County Sheriff has said the federal government will not stop him from running his office as he sees fit. But on Friday it did.

A judge ruled Friday that Arpaio's routine handling of people of Latino descent is not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounts to racial and ethnic profiling.

Some of those profiled sued Arpaio, and Judge Murray Snow found their complaints to be legitimate.

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The federal court in Phoenix ordered "America's Toughest Sheriff" -- a moniker Arpaio sports on his website -- to stop it immediately and has banned some of his operating procedures.

The sheriff's office has a history of targeting vehicles with occupants with darker skin or Latin heritage, scrutinizing them more strictly and detaining them more often, Snow ruled.

The sheriff's lawyers dispute the judge's conclusion.

Defense attorney Tim Casey said he's "very disappointed by the outcome of the decision. The MCSO and the sheriff have never used race and will never use race in their decisions."

The sheriff's office in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, is planning to appeal the ruling.

"This is vindication," said immigration rights activist Lydia Guzman, happy about the verdict. "They've been stopping people based on the color of our skin, just because someone suspected we might not be authorized to be in this country."

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Being profiled

Plaintiffs in the civil trial gave accounts alleging discriminatory treatment.

Officers stopped Manuel Nieto and Velia Meraz after they witnessed Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputies detaining two Latino men. A deputy then ordered them to leave, but they were pulled over again in front of their family business, according to the ACLU, which represented plaintiffs.

Read the ruling

The second stop was at gunpoint, they said. Nieto dialed 911, but deputies grabbed him and threw him against his car, according to the suit. Once they saw that Nieto and Meraz were U.S. citizens, they let them go -- without an apology.

Plaintiff Manuel Ortega Melendres was vising Arizona on a valid visa. He does not speak English.

In September 2007, he was arrested after the car he was riding in was pulled over by deputies.

Melendres said he showed the officers his identification but was nonetheless treated roughly and arrested. He sat in a cell for hours before a federal immigration agent confirmed that his documents were in order.

A professor of criminal justice presented a statistical analysis he said corroborated that profiling in the county was systematic.

Ralph Taylor of Temple University testified that Hispanics are more likely to be checked for immigration status during saturation patrols than non-Hispanics are.

Casey blamed the incidences on bad training by U.S. Immigration and Customs agents. The court's ruling will prevent local law enforcement from playing a potential role in immigration enforcement, he said.

No longer allowed

The court's ruling prevents the sheriff's office from carrying out some of Arpaio's policies that it said amounted to a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and the Fourteenth, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

The MCSO will no longer be allowed to use race or Latino heritage to make any law enforcement decisions, including stopping vehicles, making detentions or holding suspects longer than necessary to resolve specific allegations.

The ruling is another slap from the federal justice system against Arizona's immigration policies.

The U.S. Supreme court in June 2012 struck down parts of the state's controversial immigration law, including provisions for law enforcement that were similar to those practiced by Arpaio, and which the court deemed unconstitutional.

Law enforcement veteran

Arpaio's office claims to be the third largest sheriff's office in the United States and boasts more than 3,400 employees.

Before becoming sheriff, Arpaio was a federal narcotics agent, who eventually headed the Arizona office of the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to his biography on the MCSO website.

In April, a postal inspector intercepted an explosive package addressed to him. It was mailed a day after the department received a death threat from a major drug cartel.

In a CNN interview before his trial began, Arpaio said his department would continue to pursue illegal immigrants.

"I know I'm doing the right thing. I'm not going to surrender by those little small groups, people that don't like what I'm doing. You think I'm going to surrender? It'll never happen," the sheriff said at the time.

But on Friday attorney Casey said "America's Toughest Sheriff" will comply with the court's ruling -- for now.

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