Judge Snow's Decision Damns Not Just Arpaio, but All of Maricopa County

Shortly after the release of U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow's 142-page ruling in the 5 1/2-year-long civil rights lawsuit Melendres v. Arpaio, members of the Hispanic and activist communities gathered at Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox's El Portal restaurant for an impromptu press conference.

Essentially, Snow found that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office under Joe Arpaio had engaged for years in a pattern and practice of discriminatory policing aimed at Latinos.

He issued a broad injunctive order forbidding the use of "race or Latino ancestry" by the MCSO for law enforcement functions, including stopping vehicles, detaining those vehicles' occupants, and investigating them for violations of federal immigration law, in addition to state laws such as the human-smuggling and employer-sanctions laws.

Snow's decision was a long time coming. The original lawsuit was filed in late 2007 and finally went to trial before Snow last summer. In that time, Arpaio twice was re-elected, using Hispanic-hunting sweeps and employer raids to bolster his popularity with a majority of Maricopa County's electorate.

Several of the community leaders attending the El Portal press conference called on Arpaio to resign and praised Snow's detailed and unambiguous analysis of the evidence presented at trial and of the testimonies of Arpaio, his henchmen, and his deputies.

Others expressed the desire for Snow to appoint a monitor over the MCSO to ensure that Arpaio's office complies. This would be a smart move, considering that the MCSO was found to have destroyed evidence in the case and that the MCSO already violated a previous injunctive order from Snow.

The general mood at Wilcox's restaurant was one of vindication. After all, everyone present was intimately familiar with Arpaio's harassment and terrorizing of Maricopa County's Latino community.

Not that Arpaio has ever kept secret the bigoted nature of his law enforcement priorities. Snow often uses Arpaio's own words and the language in his agency's press releases to illustrate the MCSO's malicious intent.

Of all the speakers, veteran criminal attorney and civil rights activists Antonio Bustamante made the most salient point.

"The majority of people in Maricopa County allowed this to happen," he told the news media. "We have that kind of majority, that kind of community. That is the greatest outrage. Because that is to whom Arpaio was playing. That was his audience."

In fact, it is safe to say that Arpaio would not have turned the MCSO into an immigration-enforcement agency without the approval of the county's electorate.

To be sure, Arpaio's corruption and brutality precedes the wave of post-9/11 nativism that engulfed this state. But Arpaio's embrace of bigotry as a guiding principle of law enforcement did not create the wave. He just rode it.

In 2005, when his deputies arrested nativist wacko Patrick Haab for holding seven Mexicans at gunpoint at a Valley rest stop, Arpaio decried Haab as a vigilante.

"You don't go around pulling guns on people," Arpaio said of Haab at the time. "Being illegal is not a serious crime. You can't go to jail for being an illegal alien . . . You can only be deported."

Arpaio was behind the curve. The Minuteman Project was ongoing at the border, already drawing extremists and opportunists such as neo-Nazi and eventual baby-killer J.T. Ready and minutewoman and future murderess Shawna Forde, among others.

Up 'til that point, Arpaio's shtick had been cruelty toward the incarcerated. Even though more than 70 percent of those in his jails were pre-trial detainees, the idea of punishment before trial was popular with the electorate, even when it involved guards choking people to death in restraint chairs or denying a diabetic her medication until she slipped into a coma and died.

Keeping his vast incarceration complex a harsh and occasionally fatal one guaranteed Arpaio a high approval rating. On the Haab incident, however, he faced backlash from angry whites, while a relative newcomer, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas (later to be disbarred and disgraced), earned cheers for refusing to charge Haab.

A cunning and adept politician, Arpaio took note and began to act accordingly. The MCSO created a Human Smuggling Unit in 2006 and began to take advantage of Thomas' interpretation of a new state anti-human-smuggling statute, in which Thomas asserted that the average migrant could be prosecuted for helping to smuggle himself or herself into the country.

"I'm going to catch as many [illegal immigrants] as I can and throw them in my jail," Arpaio told the Associated Press in 2006 while announcing a new 250-member anti-immigration posse. "And the jails are not that nice."

And what about the efforts of pro-immigration advocates and civil libertarians to stop him in court?

"I get sued when I go to the toilet," he harrumphed. "If they think I'm going to slow down because of these threats, I've got news for them — I'm not going to slow down. I'll do more of it."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons