Wednesday, February 18, 2009

America's 'toughest sheriff' faces lawsuit over crime crackdown


America's 'toughest sheriff' faces lawsuit over crime crackdown

Call for investigation into alleged anti-Hispanic sweeps

• Dan Glaister in Los Angeles

•, Monday 16 February 2009 18.28 GMT


The man who likes to call himself "America's toughest sheriff" faces trial on charges that he has engaged in racial profiling of Hispanics.


Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa county in Arizona, which includes Phoenix, has achieved notoriety in recent years thanks to his high-profile law enforcement tactics. He has forced prisoners to march through the city dressed in just pink underwear, housed inmates in tents in the searing heat of the Arizona summer, and now appears on the Fox reality show Smile … You're Under Arrest. Last week he staged the 200 Mexican March, forcing prisoners to march in shackles from a local jail to his "tent city".

But his tactic of swamping areas of Maricopa county with hundreds of sheriff's deputies to carry out "crime suppression sweeps" has led to charges that he has abused his authority.


Last Wednesday, a federal judge cleared the way for five plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and two immigrant rights' groups, to bring a lawsuit against Arpaio.

The bad news for Sheriff Joe, as he is known, was compounded on Friday when the chairmen of four US House of Representatives committees called on Eric Holder, the new US attorney general, and Janet Napolitano, who left her position as governor of Arizona to become homeland security secretary, to investigate allegations of misconduct against Arpaio.


"Racial profiling and segregation are simply not acceptable," the House judiciary committee chairman, John Conyers, said in a letter to Holder and Napolitano. "Media stunts and braggadocio are no substitute for fair and effective law enforcement."


The chair of the House immigration sub-committee, Zoe Lofgren, said: "The basic premise of our justice system is that people are innocent until proven otherwise. I'm concerned that in Maricopa county that basic premise appears to have been turned upside down and that Latino members of [the] community are considered 'undocumented' until proven otherwise."


The call for an investigation stems from a crime sweep conducted by Arpaio in late 2007. On 6 September that year, Manuel Ortega Melendres, a Mexican national with a valid US work visa, was a passenger in a car stopped by police. Ortega Melendres was asked for and presented his identification. But according to court papers, officers believed it to be fake, and took him into custody. After four hours, with no food or water, no charges and no information, he was taken to be interviewed by immigration officials. After another four hours, he was released, with no charges and no explanation for his detention. Melendres is one of the plaintiffs in the case brought against Arpaio.


Two months later, Arpaio's officers stopped several vehicles making U-turns on a closed road. All were allowed to pass with the exception of the vehicle driven by Jessica Rodriguez and her husband, David, both US citizens of Hispanic origin. When an officer demanded their social security cards, Rodriguez asked if they were being targeted because of the colour of their skin. Angered, according to Rodriguez, the officer gave them a traffic ticket.


What the officer did not realise was that Rodriguez was a member of the staff of the mayor of Phoenix, Phil Gordon. Last April, Gordon sent a letter to the then US attorney general, Michael Mukasey, calling for an investigation into Arpaio based on his "pattern and practice of conduct that includes discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests".


This week Arpaio denied that his deputies had used racial profiling. "We're doing the right thing," he told the Arizona Republic newspaper. "If I was worried, with all the allegations, why would I keep doing it? I'm not stupid, having worked for the feds for 30 years."


But Peter Kozinets, a lawyer representing the five plaintiffs in the case, argued that Arpaio's policy of stopping people for "driving while brown" needed to be challenged.


"At stake in this case is a matter of acute public importance. Law enforcement practices that target a group based solely on the colour of their skin have no place in America. This is a critical step in protecting the rights of all people in this country." © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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