Judge Jose Padilla says he was racially profiled twice before traffic stops

Judge Jose Padilla and his telltale truck.
Michael Ratcliff

When Jose Padilla hears about the latest local police "sweep" against Latinos who may be in this country illegally, he flashes back to his hometown of Brownsville, Texas, and "Operation Wetback."

"I can remember the people running from the police yelling 'Migra! Migra!" says Padilla, referring to the Spanish term for federal immigration authorities.

Operation Wetback, which started in 1954, called for a crackdown against undocumented workers and included stops of "Mexican-looking" people near the border by federal, state, and local cops.

Before the program ended after about a year, about 80,000 Mexicans were deported from Texas alone, and authorities estimated that about half a million others had fled for parts unknown.

"The terror was real for all these people who had come over here to work hard for their families," Padilla says. "It was a very dangerous time to be a person with brown skin. Like now."

These days, Jose Padilla is a Superior Court judge based in Surprise, almost within shouting distance of where he once picked cotton with his parents.

Despite his myriad accomplishments, Padilla says he always remains mindful of where he comes from, and of the color of his skin.

He chuckles when asked whether he believes that local law enforcement engages in racial profiling.

"Believe it, no," he says. "Know it? Yes, sir."

The judge cites two personal examples in the past few years and, surprisingly, neither involved Sheriff Joe Arpaio's agency.

Padilla says he was driving his 1988 Toyota pickup truck, which now has 261,000 miles on it.

"I bought it with wide tires on it, makes it looks a little like a low-rider deal," he says of his ride.

Padilla has played guitar professionally since he was a teen (an Ovation guitar rests on a stand in his courtroom chambers). One night after hanging up his judicial robes, he was driving from his home in central Phoenix to a gig at 43rd and Glendale avenues.

"I got onto I-17 and a two-man DPS [state Department of Public Safety] unit started following me from the time I got on until I turned off at Glendale," Padilla says. "They followed me off the freeway and stopped me."

One of the cops finally explained the stop.

"He told me I had extraordinarily bright lights, and gave me a repair order," Padilla says. "I knew what this was all about. I couldn't fix the lights because they weren't broken. They said it was distracting."

He never told the officers that he's a judge.

This happened after the DPS had agreed, as part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit, to collect extensive data on its traffic stops.

That federal lawsuit had alleged that DPS officers in northern Arizona had used racial profiling to pull over a disproportionate number of Latino and black drivers.

An independent study, completed as part of the settlement, showed that DPS officers in 2006 were more than twice as likely to search vehicles driven by Hispanics and blacks than whites. Minorities also were far more likely to be arrested and hit with multiple traffic violations than whites.

Judge Padilla had another unexpected brush with the law late last year.

"I got stopped at a stop sign right near the court by the Surprise Police Department," he recalls, shaking his head.

"I was driving my Toyota Corolla this time, and I hadn't violated any moving violations that I'd ever heard of. The cop told me that the plate cover on my license plate was keeping him from reading my plate properly from 50 feet. What? I kept my hands in plain sight at all times. He finally let me go. I was not happy. There was nothing wrong with the plates — still isn't."

Padilla says he later complained to Surprise police officials.

"If someone deserves to be stopped, whether they are brown, white, black, or green, then stop them," Padilla says. "But don't stop me just because of what I look like and because I have wide tires, or because you feel like it. It's very creepy, and reminds me of where my life started,"

Padilla was the youngest of the six surviving children of Jose and Maria Padilla, both of whom died in the 1980s.

His mother was a U.S. citizen born in Christmas, Arizona, a now-defunct mining settlement south of Globe in Gila County.

His father was a bracero from Jalisco, Mexico, part of a "guest worker" program that ran from the early 1940s until 1964 and allowed Mexican citizens to work the fields in this country (and perform other labor). The elder Padilla lived in the U.S. as a registered alien.

Padilla's parents were seasonal field workers and went where the crops were. They moved to Arizona in 1953, to a then-rural section of Peoria nicknamed Dogtown — officially the Varney Tract.

Padilla barely spoke English as a youth, but says he learned quickly at Peoria Elementary, where "there were two classes of kids — the kids whose parents had money and the kids whose parents didn't."

The Padillas picked cotton in the West Valley and worked the grape yards in Arrowhead Ranch. Jose Padilla went to work in the fields, in the afternoons after school, with his parents when he was about 12.

"My mom — who was my mentor — had worked as a cleaning lady in Mexico City for some educated people," Padilla says. "She knew the value of education and pushed it at me constantly. She gave me a choice, which was to go to work or go to school. I'm lazy, and I didn't like my body hurting, so it was school."

Padilla won a scholarship from two Latino organizations to Arizona State University in 1969 but dropped out during his freshman year.

Within weeks, he says he got a letter that started, "Your president cordially requests your presence . . ."

The grape-picking season was nearing, and Padilla says he won a temporary deferment from military service to work in the fields.

But he entered the Army later in 1970.

While training for the infantry and a tour in Vietnam, Padilla learned that he was legally blind in one eye. Instead of 'Nam, the young man was shipped to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he was trained as an emergency room tech, a job he came to love.

Back in the Valley after his honorable discharge, Padilla used his veteran's benefits of $125 a month to take classes at Glendale Community College, where he earned his associate's degree in 1977.

He later earned his nursing degree from ASU, and then went to work at Phoenix Memorial Hospital. While working as an ER nurse, Padilla attended the ASU School of Law, from which he earned his juris doctorate in 1984.

He quit nursing and started his own law practice in 1987 after a stint with a local firm.

Then, in 2005, Governor Janet Napolitano appointed the one-time cotton picker to the bench.

"I never thought about being a judge, never had a plan," he says. "Call it luck, good fortune, or whatever you want to call it. Things just happen to me. I'm a Latino Forrest Gump."

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