Arpaio Archives

Melendres v. Arpaio Exposes Racial Profiling

Joe Arpaio once said he wouldn't target undocumented dishwashers, but when his Republican constituents pushed him to be harder on illegal immigration, he fashioned himself into "America's Toughest Sheriff."
Joe Arpaio once said he wouldn't target undocumented dishwashers, but when his Republican constituents pushed him to be harder on illegal immigration, he fashioned himself into "America's Toughest Sheriff."

Following our arrest by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County settled with us for nearly $4 million. We used this money to make substantial donations to local groups fighting for the rights of  the greater Mexican-American community from the border.

The following summation of the Melendres lawsuit brought by the Arizona Civil Liberties Union highlights the abuses by Sheriff Arpaio of our neighbors. This reign of terror orchestrated by the Sheriff and applauded by voters explains why we have extended a helping hand to those working on behalf of the Mexican-American community as well as the migrants who pursue a better life.


The plaintiffs

Manuel Jesus de Ortega Melendres staggered out of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building, his mouth bone-dry, his swollen wrists throbbing from two behind-the-back handcuffings.

His pain was temporary. His fear is not.

He had spent nine hours in custody – five of those in holding cells. He was not given food or water. He was not read his rights. He was not told what crime he had committed.

Because he hadn’t committed a crime.

That morning, Melendres – a retired schoolteacher from Mexico – stepped into a truck at a Cave Creek church that helped day laborers find work. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) Human Smuggling Unit, staking out the church, instructed a deputy to follow the vehicle and “attempt to develop probable cause to stop it.”

The deputy pulled the truck over for speeding. He did not give the Caucasian driver a ticket but did ask the Latino passengers for documentation. Melendres produced a valid U.S. visa and permit, yet he was searched, harassed, handcuffed, and kept in custody without cause.

He had a right to live and work in the United States but was treated like a criminal, just like the other plaintiffs in the case.

“Singling people out for traffic stops and detentions because they are Latino is unconstitutional and just plain un-American.”

Manuel Nieto and Velia Meraz, both U.S. citizens, were pulled over at gunpoint by MCSO deputies after they drove up to a convenience store with the windows down, singing to Spanish music. American citizens David and Jessika Rodriguez were stopped by an MCSO officer who demanded to see Mr. Rodriguez’s social security card and gave him a ticket for driving on a closed road, while car after car of Caucasians left with only a warning.

In 2008, the plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, brought a class-action lawsuit against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the MCSO, and Maricopa County for systematic racial profiling of Latinos during traffic stops.

ACLU Attorney Andre Segura with reporters after a Melendres v. Arpaio hearing.

ACLU Attorney Andre Segura with reporters after a Melendres v. Arpaio hearing.

The ruling

In a parade of press conferences and press releases over the years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio made no pretense of his vision for the MCSO: “We are quickly becoming a full-fledged anti-illegal immigration agency,” he announced in 2007. At another conference, he admitted, “[O]urs is an operation, whether it’s the state law or the federal, to go after illegals, not the crime first… you go after them and you lock them up.”

To further his goal, Arpaio launched a hotline so the public could tip off the MCSO to suspected undocumented immigrants. But since there’s no way a citizen can casually observe if someone has U.S. citizenship, the hotline and the MCSO’s email system inevitably attracted suspicions based solely on race.

A Sun City woman who heard Spanish spoken at a McDonald’s asked Arpaio to rid the area of illegal immigrants. Another individual emailed the sheriff, saying, “If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin! Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegal who are here ILLEGALLY… They bring their unclean, disrespectful, integrity-less, law breaking selves here… I am begging you to come over to the 29th St/Greenway Pkwy area and round them all up!”

“Arpaio loves to have confrontations with federal court, because every time he does his popularity goes up.”

Directed in part by this racially motivated prodding, MCSO officers conducted “saturation patrols” in areas where Latinos congregate. They followed vehicles departing the area expressly in order to pull them over for traffic violations, sometimes as minor as a pebble-sized chip on a windshield. Officers then inspected the documents of the occupants – even passengers who had not noticeably committed a crime – and detained those they suspected were in the country illegally.

Statistical analysis revealed in court that MCSO officers assigned to work saturation patrols were about 50 percent more likely to stop Latinos than were officers not involved in saturation patrols on the same days.

These practices are illegal. In May 2013, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow determined that Sheriff Arpaio and his officers were targeting Latinos through racial profiling and illegal detentions. The MCSO’s policies violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Singling people out for traffic stops and detentions because they are Latino is unconstitutional and just plain un-American,” said Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

The cover-up

On April 30, 2014, Phoenix Police Department officers responded to a burglary call at the home of MCSO Human Smuggling Unit member Charley Armendariz. They found the 40-year-old wearing only boxer shorts and shooting a pepper-ball gun at imaginary robbers in his garage.

During a subsequent search of his home, police found hard drugs, hundreds of fake I.D.s, information from drivers with Hispanic surnames, and 900 hours of videotape that Armendariz shot during traffic stops.

A few days later, Armendariz committed suicide by hanging himself.

The evidence found at Armendariz’s house, some of which dated back to 2007, should have been submitted to court but never was. It wasn’t the first time the MCSO concealed evidence.

In 2010, Judge Snow sanctioned the MCSO for destroying documents that may have confirmed Armendariz and other MCSO officers were shaking down suspected undocumented immigrants for valuables. Snow said he could infer that the destroyed evidence included racially charged citizen complaints and incriminating records from traffic stops.

The Armendariz evidence is still being examined, but it raises questions. Was the troubled man a rogue acting on his own, or was he under instructions to conceal evidence? And since other MCSO officers were videotaping their traffic stops, why was that footage never submitted to court? Judge Snow says the fact that Arpaio previously withheld evidence raises the issue of “whether the Sheriff may have facilitated the attempted suppression of additional recordings.”

Protestors at the court during Melendres v. Arpaio.

Protestors at the court during Melendres v. Arpaio.

Criminal Contempt

In December 2014, Judge Snow presided over a packed courtroom, meting out criticism with the cool judgment that befits his name. Facing him in the wooden pews was Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“I have some deep concerns, and I’m glad [Arpaio is] here to hear them,” Snow said. “I believe there have been some serious violations that require this court to take action.”

During the trial, offensive emails emerged that circulated within the MCSO. 

In December 2012, Snow had permanently prohibited the MCSO from detaining, holding or arresting Latino occupants of vehicles solely based on suspicion that they are in the country without authorization. He also enjoined the MCSO from using Hispanic race as any factor in making law enforcement decisions.

However, Snow announced, “This court order was not communicated to the troops in the Human Smuggling Unit.” As a result, the MCSO continued its unconstitutional practices for another 18 months.

It is perhaps not surprising. Documents and testimony revealed the MCSO’s atmosphere of chauvinism and cavalier attitude toward federal law. During the trial, offensive emails emerged that circulated within the MCSO. One likened Mexicans to dogs; another showed two drunken men slumped over chairs above the caption “Mexican yoga.”

Arpaio is a self-described “publicity hound” who keeps stacks of thank-you letters from constituents, among them one submitted to court stating: “DO THE MESA, AZ SWEEP!!! IT NEEDS IT TERRIBLY!!! The Mesa, AZ police chief drags his feet… add the fact that the head of Mesa’s police union is a Hispanic.” On that letter, Arpaio jotted a message to his secretary to “thank him for support… I will be going over into Mesa.”

Judge Snow chided Arpaio for prioritizing his popularity over the law, saying Arpaio “loves to have confrontations with federal court, because every time he does his popularity goes up.”

Because of the MCSO’s flagrant disregard for the court’s orders, as well as its destruction of crucial evidence, Snow announced in December that he is considering criminal contempt charges against Arpaio and the MCSO. Snow will first conduct a civil contempt proceeding. If Arpaio is held in civil contempt but no civil solution to the violations can be found, Snow said he will refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney for criminal charges.

“We are still pleased about the outcome of this case,” says Dan Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona. “People in the community have been impacted for the better, for sure, with the ending of some of these large-scale saturation patrols and resources used by the MCSO. But there’s also been some clear biting back… by the sheriff and some of his chief officials.”

It is for all these reasons that the Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund is dedicating $3.7 million to organizations supporting the rights of immigrants who have suffered fear, intimidation, and harassment at the hands of the MCSO’s unconstitutional racial profiling.