Arpaio Awaits Justice as Election Looms

Editor's note: Michael Lacey is the former co-owner of Village Voice Media. He and his partner sold VVM to senior management registered as Voice Media Group. This is his first freelance article for New Times.

At long last, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the celebrated mask of Mexican misery, was in a federal courthouse, waiting to explain himself.

But Arpaio had to cool his heels while the trial's initial witness, one of his own, explained the inexplicable.

The first deputy to raise his hand and swear to tell the truth set the standard for outlandish testimony that permeated Arpaio's trial.

And the deputy's own lawyer doubled down on his client's nonsense with the sort of tortured logic that only an attorney can float with a straight face.

"[Deputy Louis Dipietro] could not see the race of the driver or the occupants," intoned Tim Casey, hired to defend Sheriff Arpaio and his officers against allegations of racial profiling and abuse of power.

Casey's point was that race had nothing to do with the roundup of Mexicans over the past six years that triggered Ortega Melendres v. Joseph M. Arpaio, the lawsuit that had triggered the proceeding.

Casey demonstrated incredible brass.

Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres was stopped and detained solely because he was Mexican.

To suggest otherwise is ludicrous.

The sheriff stationed undercover officers to observe day laborers in a church parking lot.

The undercover deputies then alerted Deputy Dipietro when brown-skinned people got into a vehicle and only when brown-skinned people got into a vehicle.

Dipietro specifically was instructed to pull over the truck undercover officers saw Melendres enter.

The lawyers began the lying. And the deputies tempered their falsehoods with obfuscation and a sort of blunt-force racism that just isn't on public display in this day and age.

But what else would you expect from deputies employed by a sheriff who brags about how he lies in courtrooms?

The law, of course, forbids racial profiling. But the law, particularly Arizona Senate Bill 1070, as applied, is a funny thing. It sanctions a farce that runs like this: You cannot pull over a car simply because it's occupied by blacks or, in this case, browns. However, you are permitted to stop any vehicle for the slightest infraction: a cracked windshield, a dim light over a license plate, the tiniest transgression of speed, safety, or other rules of the road.

Several of Arpaio's deputies testified: If they followed a car — any car — they found probable cause to pull over a driver within minutes. And once they stopped a driver for an infraction, they were permitted to make inquiries regarding immigration status.

So law enforcement cannot harass minorities until after hyper-vigilant automobile inspection. But once a badge curtsies to that technicality, it becomes worse than white on rice.

In the case of Deputy Dipietro and Arpaio's church sweep, they could not even be bothered with legal fictions. First they spotted the Mexicans, then they found the violation, then they came to court and pretended they didn't do it.

Melendres was removed from the car, detained by the MCSO, then transported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where it was discovered he had his immigration papers in order. His visa was current.

In custody for nearly eight hours, Melendres was a clear example of the Fourth Amendment anxiety the Supreme Court expressed when it considered the constitutional problems of SB 1070. The justices worried that lawmen would detain people unreasonably.

Justice Stephen Breyer framed the issue: "Can you represent to us he will not stay in jail in detention for a longer period of time than he would have stayed in the absence of section 2B [the part of 1070 eventually upheld]?"

Paul Clement, representing Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and the proponents of 1070, responded to Justice Breyer: "No. He's not going to be detained any longer than the Fourth Amendment allows. The immigration-status inquiry is something that takes 10 or 11 minutes."

Melendres' eight hours was not unusual. Nor was it constitutional.

Deputy Dipietro, who followed and then stopped the vehicle Melendres rode in, made an unusual witness. His testimony was almost cartoonish. He considered every question, even those from his own attorney, as possible traps. He pondered long and hard before surrendering an answer. He avoided words as if they were germs. When he finally responded, he resorted to cop-speak, the law enforcement equivalent of Spanglish.

"Well, the driver was in a means of transportation [truck]. He didn't know the occupants [day laborers], and they were coming from a parking lot [of a church]," recounted Dipietro. "The Human Smuggling Unit was investigating for some type of crime or possible crimes [Mexican entering truck]. I believe that there's possible reasonable suspicion to think that they might be involved [in smuggling] . . . Yes, most of the ones that I came across."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey