By Paul Rubin
When Jose Padilla hears about the latest local police “sweep” against brown people from south-of-the-border, he flashes back to his hometown of Brownsville, Texas, and the government program dubbed “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.
“The terror was real for all these people who had come over here to work hard for their families. It was a very dangerous time to be a person with brown skin. Like now.”
Padilla, who grew up in poverty and was no stranger to racial prejudice as a youngster and afterward, has had a remarkable life run that he sums up like this: “Things just happen to me. I’m a Latino Forrest Gump.”
These days, Padilla is a Superior Court judge, serving in the Family Court in the courthouse complex out in Surprise, almost within shouting distance of where he once picked cotton with his parents.
He chuckles briefly when asked if 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, both of which happened in the past few years.
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 look a little like a low-rider deal,” he says.
Padilla has been playing the guitar professionally since he was a teen, and still performs here and there (a beautiful Ovation guitar rests on a stand in his courtroom chambers).
One night after work, 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 [Department of Public Safety] unit started following me from the time I got on until I turned off at Glendale,” he says. “They followed me off and stopped me. I showed them my concealed-weapon permit and told him I had a gun in the vehicle. I’d been carrying it since that judge got killed in Reno. Never told them I was a judge.”
Finally, one of the cops 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. I never said anything rude to them or anything close to it. I’m not crazy.”
The stop happened about two years after DPS agreed as part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit to collect extensive data on traffic stops and install video equipment in cruisers.
That federal suit had alleged that some DPS officers in northern Arizona had used racial profiling to pull over a disproportionate number of Latino and black drivers.
DPS bristled at the notion that its officers practice racial profiling, though a study published last November seemed to find new evidence of possible racial profiling by the agency.
Among other findings, the study showed that highway patrol officers in 2006 were more than twice as likely to search vehicles driven by Hispanics and blacks than whites, and also were far more likely to be arrested and hit with multiple traffic violations.
(Interestingly, Native Americans received fewer tickets and warnings per capita than any other group, and whites were significantly more likely to receive speeding violation than Latinos or blacks.)
But all of those statistics mean little to Judge Padilla, who speaks of another brush with The Man late last year.
“I left work at the same time as one of my colleagues, Bill Brotherton, and I got stopped right near the court by the Surprise Police Department,” he recalls.
“Brotherton saw what was going on, and he turned around and came back. I was driving my Toyota Corolla this time. 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. I don’t think it’s incorrect to chalk up the stop to racial profiling, whether they admit it or not.”
Padilla is a pragmatic guy with a whimsical sense of humor (he’s a huge Monty Python fan). He calls his Family Court assignment “one of the last areas where a judge can be a judge.”
Over his office desk, he keeps a framed handwritten note that says, “Judge Padilla made me and five children homeless against AZ laws.”
The note refers to an order Padilla signed after another judge had ruled on the case.
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The judge calls it his “humility placard.”
He says he knows from his experience as a judge and, before that, as a practicing attorney, that the legal system he works in, while flawed and inequitable at times, generally works. That’s similar to what he says about law enforcement, but with a strongly worded caveat.
“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,”
(A longer version of this story--which includes details of Padilla’s rise from the cotton fields to a stint in the Army during the Vietnam War era, to a decade working as a registered nurse in a Phoenix hospital and, finally, to his late-blooming career as an attorney and an appointment as a county judge--will soon be available in our print edition and on-line.)