No Probable Cause? No Problem!: A U.S. Citizen Says He Was Detained Without Probable Cause by the MCSO, and Then Jailed for Traffic Violations

Editor's note: This is one of a group of individual accounts of racial profiling by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's forces.

What's important to remember about 18-year-old Jerry Cosio's arrest by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is that he was confronted without apparent probable cause. Cosio's not perfect — he was driving on a suspended license — but that's not why he was approached.

He wasn't even driving when a sheriff's deputy asked for his identification.

Cosio, a U.S. citizen, believes he was confronted because he's brown. He was minding his own business, he says, when the deputy suddenly walked up.

In any case, the deputy got lucky when he radioed headquarters and found that Cosio had a suspended license for not paying speeding tickets.

This is not the way arrests are legally handled in the United States. A police officer must have a legal reason to detain a suspect — probable cause.

The deputy trumped up something later, Cosio maintains: that Cosio wasn't wearing a seatbelt and that his car wasn't insured. (Remember, he wasn't driving when the deputy encountered him.)

The incident occurred during Sheriff's Joe Arpaio's immigration sweep in Mesa last July. Cosio was sitting in his parked vehicle when the deputy approached. For the MCSO's part, its offense report doesn't say why Cosio was questioned in the first place.

"It was discrimination," contends Cosio. "It was because of the way I look."

On the afternoon of his arrest, Cosio, a student who was a full-time mechanic at a Checkers Auto Parts store at the time, had gotten a nervous call from his mother. A deputy had arrested his uncle, who (unlike Cosio) is an undocumented immigrant. She wanted Cosio to check on him and, if possible, arrange to get his paycheck after his deportation to Mexico.

When Cosio arrived on Mesa Drive and Holmes Street, he saw his uncle's truck and a sheriff's patrol car parked behind it. His uncle had a defeated look in his eyes, as if he clearly knew he was headed for detention.

Cosio parked his two-door Ford outside an apartment complex, about 25 yards away from the incident. He says he was sitting in the car and still on the phone with his mother when the deputy appeared.

The deputy asked for his ID, but Cosio didn't have it on him, since it was suspended for failure to pay fines for his speeding tickets. (He admits to New Times that he made a stupid teenage mistake by not taking care of the tickets before $3,000 in fines accrued. Nevertheless, he couldn't afford to pay what he came to owe.)

Cosio was asked for his name and date of birth, which he provided. The deputy radioed in the information and came back, Cosio says, with a smile on his face.

"You want to know what's funny?" the deputy asked. "I'm going to arrest you."

Cosio was handcuffed and taken in a van with his uncle and other people detained during the sweep. A young mother was crying in a corner because she was going to be deported.

Cosio knew that authorities couldn't deport him because of his U.S. citizenship, but he had doubts about whether the deputies knew that.

Cosio and others were driven to the Sheriff's Office command center on Lewis Street and Baseline Road, where he says the vehicle sat parked, with the detainees inside, for two hours.

Cosio overheard deputies talking about him. He says it sounded like they were in competition to catch undocumented immigrants.

"I heard you got two birds with one stone," Cosio says one deputy said to the officer who had arrested him.

Another one mentioned that he'd discovered Cosio is a U.S. citizen.

After that, Cosio was taken to the Fourth Avenue Jail, where he was held for more than eight hours overnight. (Cosio has agreed to pay off his fines in $50 a month installments.)

Cosio says the deputy had no reason to walk over to his car and question him, much less give somebody who wasn't driving a ticket for operating a motor vehicle without a seatbelt.

And about the MCSO's claim that he lacked insurance, Cosio says, not only did he have insurance, but the deputy never asked him for proof of it.

The Sheriff Office didn't return calls in reference to this case. Cosio confirmed that he was interviewed by the Justice Department as part of what federal investigators said was an ongoing probe of alleged racial profiling by the MCSO.

"Why did the deputy walk up to me? My car's paint job is fading away," Cosio says. "I think they where [going after people in] ugly cars."

At least, he says, the ugly ones containing brown people.

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Valeria Fernández