- Associated Press - Thursday, December 22, 2011

PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge will hear arguments Thursday in a lawsuit that alleges racial profiling in Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration patrols, a week after federal authorities accused the sheriff’s office of a wide range of civil rights violations.

The lawsuit was filed by a handful of Latinos who claim officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics in vehicles, pulling them over without probable cause to inquire about their immigration status.

The suit is among a mounting number of legal challenges against the embattled department, which faced a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report last week, then lost its federal credentials to verify the immigration status of inmates.

A lawsuit filed this week alleges county employees exhibited deliberate indifference to a female inmate’s medical needs and violated her rights when they kept her shackled before and after her 2009 Caesarean section.

Also this week, a family said they’re exploring a possible lawsuit against the sheriff’s office after the death of an inmate found unresponsive in a Phoenix jail cell after a weekend fight with deputies. The inmate died after being taken off life support.

In court Thursday, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow will consider possible sanctions against the sheriff’s office in the lawsuit alleging racial profiling for its acknowledged destruction of some records of the patrols and a request by Sheriff Arpaio’s lawyers to dismiss the case.

During the patrols, known as “sweeps,” deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders. Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by his office since January 2008, according to figures provided by Sheriff Arpaio’s office.

The Justice Department said last week that Sheriff Arpaio’s office has a pattern of racially profiling Latinos, basing immigration enforcement on racially charged citizen complaints and punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish. Sheriff Arpaio faces a Jan. 4 deadline for saying whether he wants to work out an agreement to settle allegations. The Justice Department has said it’s prepared to sue Sheriff Arpaio and let a judge decide the matter if no agreement can be worked out.

Apart from the civil rights probe, a federal grand jury also has been investigating Sheriff Arpaio’s office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and specifically is examining the investigative work of the sheriff’s anti-public-corruption squad.

No trial date has yet been set in the lawsuit over Sheriff Arpaio’s sweeps.

The sheriff has denied the racial-profiling allegations, saying that people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that deputies found many of them were illegal immigrants.

Judge Snow previously has found grounds to sanction the sheriff’s office for throwing away or shredding some records of traffic stops made during the sweeps, but he held off on imposing a punishment.

The judge is considering a set of possible “inferences” that either the judge or a jury would take into account in deciding the case’s outcome. Under the inferences now under consideration, the judge or a jury would be able to infer that the records would have suggested officers didn’t follow a zero-tolerance policy requiring them to stop all traffic offenders and that the documents would have included a higher number of immigration arrests than records documenting ordinary patrol activity.

Sheriff Arpaio’s lawyers have asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that those who filed the case lack standing to show they face a threat of future injury from the sweeps and that people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had violated a law.