Editor's note: This is one of a group of individual accounts of racial profiling by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's forces. The next personal story will appear on our Web site Wednesday night, December 16.
Manuel Nieto Jr. and his sister Velia Meraz, key plaintiffs in the ACLU's racial-profiling lawsuit filed last year against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, have evidence on their side.
Their father, Manuel Nieto Sr., witnessed his adult children getting accosted in front of his north Phoenix auto-repair business. And 911 calls made by the pair to report the alleged harassment tip the scale in their favor.
A lack of evidence by the MCSO is also on their side: Despite solid proof that some kind of tense traffic stop occurred between the pair and sheriff's deputies — in the midst of one of their infamous immigrant sweeps — amazingly the Sheriff's Office claims it has no record of the incident.
Visit "Are Your Papers in Order?" for more stories in this series.
Despite shady backgrounds, the siblings have a great claim.
Nieto Jr. spent three years in prison for burglary. He'd been released the month before. The divorced Meraz was struggling to raise three children. When her ex-husband stopped making child-support payments in 2005, she betrayed her employers at the Catholic Social Services center and began stealing thousands of dollars in payments that should have gone to illegal immigrants. In 2006, she served six months in jail for the crime.
Yet the brother and sister were on the right track in March 2008, working for their father's business, Manuel's Auto Repair, 14849 North Cave Creek Road. Just as they do today, Nieto Jr. helped fix cars and Meraz was the office assistant.
In the late afternoon of March 28, after working all day, the pair decided to drive over to the Quick Stop & Gas convenience store a few blocks away for soft drinks and cigarettes.
It was Spanish-language music that seemed to have sparked the events that followed, according to interviews and the ACLU complaint.
The siblings pulled into parking place in front of the store, the van's windows rolled down on the nice, spring day. Meraz was singing loudly along with a Spanish tune on the radio.
Near the gas pumps, a sheriff's deputy was cuffing a couple of Hispanic men. Though the siblings didn't know it, Sheriff Joe Arpaio had ordered one of his "crime sweeps" that day, and deputies were patrolling the area looking for Mexicans. Now, the official line from the Sheriff's Office is that no racial profiling occurs during these sweeps. But that concept is belied by Arpaio's anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric and heavy use of deputies cross-trained by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau during the sweeps.
The sheriff's deputy busting the men at the gas pumps was Alberto Armendiaz, who was certified at the time under ICE's 287(g) program.
When Armendiaz saw Nieto Jr. and Meraz park and heard the music they were blaring, the siblings say, he yelled at them that they should leave the area.
Meraz asked him why they should leave, since they weren't doing anything wrong. The deputy then walked over to the van and told them that if they didn't do what he said, he'd arrest them for disorderly conduct. While New Times was unable to obtain the deputy's side of the story, the pair's version up to this point hardly seems out of character for one of Arpaio's employees.
Meraz got the deputy's badge number and name, and the pair drove off. As they were pulling out of the parking lot, though, they saw Armendariz apparently calling for backup on his radio. They also say they saw Armendariz motion to a motorcycle office cruising down Cave Creek Road, directing him to follow the pair.
Within moments, three other sheriff's vehicles swarmed the pair as they approached their father's business.
As they pulled into the parking lot, Nieto Jr., indignant over what he perceived as harassment, called 911. New Times reviewed several 911 calls made by Nieto Jr.
"Yes, we do have an emergency!" he yelled into the phone. "Yeah, there's an officer shouting . . . But he's harassing me, yelling at me!"
Sirens can be heard in the background. Nieto Jr. tells the deputies he has 911 on the phone.
"I don't care who you have," a gruff voice can be heard answering him.
The cell phone fell to the ground, where it picked up the cacophony of the brief standoff. Nieto Jr. claims one of the deputies threw it to the ground before slapping handcuffs on him.
Meraz told New Times recently that deputies aimed guns at her and her brother during the stop.
"They were pointing it at me, telling me to come out with my hands up," Meraz says. "It's a horrible experience that I would not wish upon anyone. It's the worst feeling ever."
Customers from the auto-repair business came out to see what was going on and, according to the siblings, were told to leave or face arrest.
Manuel Nieto Sr. said in an interview with New Times that when he emerged from his shop, deputies screamed at him to go back inside. Nieto Sr. says he screamed right back, "No! This is my place. I'm a U.S. citizen, and those are my children, and they're citizens."
At this news, the deputies reportedly lost their steam. They seemed surprised. According to the complaint, they "immediately backed down and lowered their weapons. Mr. Nieto was let out of handcuffs."
After running Nieto Jr.'s name through their computer and finding no outstanding warrants, the deputies collected themselves and fled the scene without issuing citations. Nieto Jr. called 911 again and eventually filed a verbal complaint with a Phoenix police supervisor. Meraz also called 911 and was told that Deputies Cesar Brockman and Douglas Beeks were among those at the scene.
The Sheriff's Office does not allege Meraz or Nieto Jr. did anything wrong. Yet when law officers handcuff and pull guns on people who do nothing wrong, there ought to be a report made.
In response to legal requests for public records made by New Times, the Sheriff's Office supposedly combed through its files for any sign that it had duly recorded the traffic stop. After weeks of waiting, New Times was provided with a call-history document supposedly related to the stop. The document referenced an unrelated stop and contains no mention of Nieto Jr., Meraz, their vehicle, or anything resembling what can be heard on the 911 recordings.
Though Meraz had obtained the names of three deputies who participated in the debacle, not one of them wrote up the incident in a report, according to the Sheriff's Office.
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At a pro-immigrant rally a few days later, Nieto Sr. spread word that he was looking for a good lawyer, and the ACLU soon called. Now the siblings are part of a high-profile lawsuit that's been wending its way through the legal system for more than a year. The siblings aren't asking for a penny in their case — they just want Arpaio to stop racially profiling people.
In October, ACLU lawyers discovered that the Sheriff's Office has been systematically destroying records related to its much-publicized sweeps — and that the destruction continued long after lawyers and the media had requested the records. Thousands of notes and statistics related to the crime sweeps thought to contain evidence of racial profiling are now gone.
Last month, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow ordered the destruction of documents to end. But the damage has been done. Whether records related to the March 28 traffic stop of Nieto Jr. and Meraz ever existed, they have probably been shredded by now.
Yet if the only available evidence are the 911 tapes and witnesses statements, then Nieto Jr. and Meraz should win their argument by default.