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The self-proclaimed "Toughest Sheriff in America" is facing one of his toughest tests. A trial begins Thursday morning in Phoenix accusing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of violating the civil rights of Latino citizens and legal U.S. residents. The class-action civil suit says the sheriff went over the line in his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
For years, Arpaio's deputies have run what he calls "crime-suppression sweeps." One-, two- or three-day operations in which deputies fan out across neighborhoods in the Phoenix area. Before one sweep in 2008, Arpaio admitted to looking for a particular kind of suspect.
"If we come across any illegal aliens during the course of this operation, they'll be arrested and put in jail," he said.
Five U.S. citizens and legal residents are named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The evidence also includes declarations from people such as Adolfo Maldonado.
"I was pulled over twice in two different suppression raids," Maldonado said.
Maldonado, who was born in Mexico, has been a legal permanent resident of the U.S. since 1989. He says that the first time he was stopped in his car, a deputy held him and his brother for 10 minutes and then let him go. The second time, he says, he was stopped because his vehicle registration had expired. But instead of just getting a ticket, he says, the deputy first asked for his Social Security number. He refused to answer.
"He asked me whether I was in the country legally," he says. "I asked whether I needed to answer that. He said no, so I refrained from answering those questions."
Maldonado says he got a ticket after being held for a half-hour.
"The sheriff has essentially equated illegal with Latino, and his deputies have gone out and disproportionately stopped Latinos and people they presume to be Latinos," says ACLU attorney Cecilia Wang, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
In order to win, the plaintiffs have to prove that Arpaio's department engaged in systematic racial profiling.
Federal Judge Murray Snow will hear from the plaintiffs, from the author of a study showing Latinos in Maricopa County are more likely to be stopped and stopped for longer periods of time, and from Arpaio himself. Lawyers will ask Arpaio to explain his response to inflammatory emails and letters he received.
"These letters would say things like, 'There are Mexicans hanging out on such and such a corner — I think you need to do something about it,' " she said.
Wang says Arpaio wouldn't just toss or file the correspondence, he'd send thank-you notes, then pass along the messages to his chief deputy marked "for our operations."
"What you see is a pattern where the sheriff would acknowledge a racially discriminatory letter from a constituent, and then following that, you'd see the sheriff go in and do an immigration sweep in the very area singled out in a discriminatory way by that constituent," she says.
Arpaio and his lawyers declined a request to talk about the lawsuit. That doesn't mean he has been quiet. Arpaio held a news conference Tuesday to release what he called new evidence that President Obama's birth certificate is fake. Arpaio says he's investigating that because some constituents asked him to — and, as Arpaio said to Fox News earlier this year when he announced he's running for a sixth term in November, he represents his constituents.
"I'm the elected sheriff of Maricopa County — the 4 million people I'm responsible for," he said.
The trial seeks no money. It asks the court to order the policies stopped and to appoint a court monitor to ensure they are. Arpaio also faces a similar lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department.