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PHOENIX -- As a civil rights trial involving the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office got under way Thursday, the judge presiding over the federal case offered a warning for lawyers arguing the case: Keep it current.
U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow told the lawyers involved that his ruling will be based on the facts now, not when the lawsuit was filed in 2007.
"Keep in mind that I'm going to make a decision based on the facts as I understand them today," Snow said.
The case began when Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the United States legally, was stopped outside a church in Cave Creek, Ariz., where day laborers were known to gather. Melendres, the passenger in a car driven by a white, non-Hispanic driver, claims that deputies detained him for nine hours and that the detention was unlawful.
Eventually, the case grew to include complaints from two Hispanic siblings from Chicago who felt that sheriff's deputies profiled them and from an assistant to former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon whose Hispanic husband claims he was detained and cited while nearby white motorists were treated differently.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, a class that now includes every Latino driver stopped or detained by Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies since 2007, told Snow the issues in the case were not about immigration policy but about fundamental rights protected in the Constitution.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio's use of saturation patrols as a means of immigration enforcement tramples those rights, said Stanley Young, San Francisco lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
"Our goal here is not to impede enforcement of immigration laws; rather our goal is to ensure the actions of the MCSO conform to the Constitution," Young said. "We hope the court will compel the MCSO to honor the Constitution and put in place the standard practices that other law-enforcement agencies around the county have used to prevent racial discrimination and comply with equal protection laws."
To prove institutional discrimination, experts say that plaintiffs in the Melendres case will have to rely on a three-pronged approach that uses the sheriff's own statements and internal communications to prove the agency's intention to target Latino drivers. Then they must use a combination of anecdotal evidence and statistical analysis to show the results.
But the plaintiffs' evidence is scant, Tim Casey, the sheriff's attorney, told Snow. Five plaintiffs named in the case were pulled over in three separate traffic stops.
Any attempt to connect the dots between those stops, which did not come during saturation patrols or immigration sweeps, and the intent of the Sheriff's Office to target Latino residents is a reach, Casey said.
"There are press statements and there are actual field operations," Casey said. "Race or ethnicity had nothing to do with the initiation, planning or execution of these things (saturation patrols). €1/8 MCSO operations focus on crime and only crime. We enforce all the laws, whether they're popular or not."
Both sides plan to call expert witnesses to support their points. The plaintiffs called their expert first, a professor at Temple University who studied the sheriff's saturation patrols and stop data for a period from January 2007 through October 2009.
Ralph Taylor said his analysis left him with the conclusion that Latino drivers were more likely to have deputies check their names during saturation patrols and that Latino drivers were more likely to be stopped during the patrols.
That disparity extended to all stops involving Latino drivers, whether they were stopped during saturation patrols or not, Taylor said.
"If you look at the incidents or if you will the stops that take place, the incidents are more likely --and this is for the entire series -- the incidents are going to last about 22 percent longer," he said. "About 2 minutes longer if during that incident the officer checks at least one Hispanic name."