Nearly five years after Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was first sued over his immigration enforcement policy, the Arizona lawman will finally appear in court to explain himself. That's welcome news given his defiant refusal to date to provide much-needed answers to the serious allegations leveled against him.
Beginning Thursday, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow will preside over the civil rights trial that will determine whether Arpaio and his deputies engaged in racial profiling and discriminatory policing. The immigrant advocates and civil rights groups that filed the lawsuit come armed with an impressive array of evidence, including departmental communications and testimony. Some of the plaintiffs will likely describe how Arpaio's so-called crime sweeps in neighborhoods targeted Latinos for interrogation about their immigration status based on nothing more than their appearance. Manuel Nieto and Velia Meraz, both of whom are U.S. citizens, will recount how they were pulled over and handcuffed at gunpoint in the middle of the day for no apparent reason other than that Meraz was singing along to Spanish-language music when they passed a deputy.
The allegations that will be raised in the trial this week are not the only ones leveled against Arpaio. The Department of Justice, which conducted a three-year investigation into the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, has also filed a civil rights lawsuit. It too concludes that the sheriff's immigration enforcement tactics have nurtured a culture of bias and unconstitutional policing. The Justice Department's report paints a disturbing picture of a sheriff's department answerable to no other law than its own. For example, a Latino motorist was stopped for failing to use a turn signal and jailed for 13 days for failing to provide proper identification, even though he provided multiple documents sufficient to satisfy Arizona law. In another case, a deputy allegedly hit and dragged a Latino man with his patrol car and then instructed other deputies to leave the man there.
VIDEO: Visibly angry Arpaio responds to lawsuit
Whether Arpaio's tactics are illegal is up to Snow to determine. But the stakes are high. Another court is still trying to determine whether the "show me your papers" provision of Arizona's noxious immigration law, SB 1070, is constitutional. That provision would require law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally — just the sort of thing Arpaio has been doing in Maricopa County for years.
This week's trial will not only test Arpaio's claims that he's not breaking any laws. It will help determine just how far local law enforcement agencies may go in their efforts to enforce federal immigration law.