'America's Toughest Sheriff' On Trial In Ariz.

Jul 19, 2012
Originally published on July 19, 2012 6:38 pm



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. We're going to begin this hour in Arizona, where the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America went on trial today. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is accused of civil rights violations - racially profiling Hispanics during crime sweeps. This is a class-action civil case brought by people who say they were inappropriately questioned or detained. But it could have big implications for a lawman who's made a career of brash statements and actions.

NPR's Ted Robbins has been in the court today, and he joins us now from Phoenix. And Ted, to start, lay out the basics of this case. What, exactly, is the sheriff accused of doing?

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Well, Audie, for the last four to five years, the sheriff has been doing these crime-suppression operations. They're sweeps of designated neighborhoods. And he also does human-smuggling operations, which are targeting illegal immigrants. The suppression operations are supposed to cover all crimes - and obviously, the sheriff has never made a secret that he's been looking for illegal immigrants. The plaintiffs are trying to prove that the deputies have targeted Hispanic U.S. citizens and legal residents in a discriminatory way; violated their rights to equal protection under the Constitution.

That's racial profiling. Police are supposed to stop people based on their behavior - like speeding or, you know, swerving across lanes - not because of the way they look. It's a high bar to reach because they have to prove that the profiling is systematic; that it's a policy, and that it comes from the department leadership.

CORNISH: Now, what has Sheriff Arpaio's legal team had to say, in response to these stories?

ROBBINS: Well, they have been cross-examining people and basically, trying to say that these specific incidents don't prove anything. They don't prove intent; and in many cases, that they don't even prove that somebody was stopped or ticketed because they were Hispanic. One gentleman who was a party to the suit, was stopped for passing through a closed road and given a ticket, even though others who were stopped, who were white, were not. Yet, he admits that he's driven 60- to 80,000 miles in Maricopa Country since then - that was four years ago; more than four years - and that he hasn't been stopped since.

The judge has said - by the way, Audie - that he's going to rule on what's going on now with the department, yet evidence really stopped being taken in 2010. So we're not quite sure how that's going to work.

CORNISH: And Ted, who else is expected to testify? I don't know if the sheriff is supposed to take the stand as well.

ROBBINS: Yeah, in fact, the sheriff is expected to testify early sometime next week - either Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, we expect that; And that should be - that should be - obviously, that should be interesting.

CORNISH: And lastly, what's at stake in this case?

ROBBINS: Well, this is a trial before federal district judge Murray Snow, who's going to decide the case. So all the plaintiffs are asking for, is for the department to stop the practice of racial discrimination, and to have the court appoint a monitor to make sure it stops. Now, Sheriff Arpaio also faces similar, even broader lawsuits from the Department of Justice. But ultimately, I suppose this is a political situation because he's also facing re-election for a sixth term in November. And how this plays in the public - well, in Maricopa County, it could go either way. It could hurt him, or it could help him.

CORNISH: NPR's Ted Robbins. Thanks, Ted.

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

CORNISH: NPR's Ted Robbins, speaking from Phoenix about the trial of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.