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Sheriff Joe Arpaio Trial Sees Repeated Denial of Responsibility

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Most days, Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio acts like a caricature of a Western law man: the cowboy, “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” the man who brought back chain gangs, parades prisoners around in pink underwear, and clearly believes he’s above the rule of law.

“After they went after me,” Arpaio gloated in a 2009 speech to a Texans for Immigration Reform meeting, referring to the beginning of federal inquiries into his enforcement practices, “we arrested 500 more [people] just for spite.”

In May, when the Associated Press asked for clarification about these comments, Arpaio doubled down: “It was wrong,” he said.  “It wasn’t 500.  It was thousands.”

But that was then, and this is now.  Now Arpaio, whom the Washington Post points out “has never been called to account for his noxious policies or words,” is in the hot seat, halfway through a six-day civil trial that could lead to a crackdown on his department’s abusive and illegal enforcement practices.  The prosecution is trying to prove that Sheriff Joe and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) systemically discriminate against Latinos by habitually engaging in racial profiling, and they have case after case to back up their argument.  Arpaio’s typical swagger and bluster has disappeared this week, replaced by the meek denial of a defendant who has apparently decided that his best legal strategy is to feign haplessness and deny responsibility.

On the stand earlier this week, Arpaio was asked about passages in his book, Joe’s Law, which claim that Mexicans crossing the border are engaging in “reconquista,” and that second- and third- generation Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. continue to remain separate from the American mainstream.

“My co-author wrote that,” Arpaio dismissed, forgetting a 2008 incident where he told an audience that “One thing I don’t do is lie.  I was very careful writing this book.  I wrote it like I was testifying in court.”

Two days later, Arpaio’s defense team claimed that it is not the intent of MSCO’s saturation patrols to round up as many immigrants as possible; rather, the fact that many immigrants are caught up in the dragnet is a byproduct.  But that seems to deny credit to former chief deputy Dave Hendershott, who–according to the testimony of Arpaio aide Brian Sands–once told a lieutenant to go “round up as many illegal aliens as he could arrest.”

Yesterday during the trial, Arpaio’s defense–along with Sands–went so far as to claim a total “disconnect” between the things that Arpaio says and what his department’s law enforcement officials are actually doing out in the field.

“When I say a disconnect,” Sands testified, “oftentimes he doesn’t understand what the rank-and-file deputies are doing out there.”

If Sands is to be believed, Arpaio is not a swaggering sheriff who metes out the law as he sees fit, but rather a heat-stroked, confused person who blusters and growls about things without any grounding in reality and without any influence over his rank and file.  Sands is asking U.S. District Judge Murray Snow to not condemn Arpaio or MCSO because of the ramblings of a person who is “detached” from what the department he heads actually does.  It’s a desperate argument, one that would trade the Sheriff’s incompetence for MCSO’s absolution—if it were true.

Unfortunately for Arpaio, prosecutors all week have been calling forth a long parade of immigrants and Latinos to testify about their horrible treatment at the hands of MCSO deputies—and it’s hard to imagine Arpaio walking away from involvement in all these stories.  There’s the case of Lorena Escamilla, who in 2009 was pulled over because an officer somehow thought she had guns and drugs in her car (she didn’t).  He grew hostile when she refused to let him conduct a search and when she refused to sit on her hot car, and he then slammed her stomach-first into her car.  She was five months pregnant at the time.

There’s the story of Daniel Magos, who was pulled over in 2009 when an officer claimed he could not see Magos’ license plate because of the trailer Magos was pulling.  The officer asked if he had any weapons in the car, and when Magos told him about a legal handgun, the deputy told him to spread his legs and patted him down in the underarms and groin.

And there’s the story of Manuel Nieto and Velia Meraz, two siblings who pulled into a gas station where two men had been detained by a deputy.  Before leaving, Meraz shouted in Spanish to the two men that they didn’t have to sign anything they didn’t understand; this led to other officers following the siblings back to their father’s auto repair shop, where they pulled Nieto out of the car and handcuffed him.  These are just a selection of the stories and testimonies that have come out so far in the trial—multiple cases where legal Latino immigrants or Latino-Americans were pulled over and abused for little apparent reason other than the color of their skin.

In its June ruling striking down most of SB 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, the U.S. Supreme Court left intact the “show me your papers” provision that Arpaio says is so crucial to his department’s “success.”  In his opinion for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote that this provision was not pre-empted by federal law, but left the path open for additional legal challenges if there was evidence of racial profiling.

Despite Arpaio’s attempts to avoid responsibility for the wrongs committed by MCSO, if the Supreme Court is looking for evidence of racial profiling, this is it.