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Judge rules against Arizona sheriff in immigrant stops

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio talks to the media at the Sheriff's office in Phoenix
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio talks to the media at the Sheriff's office in Phoenix

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday barred high profile Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio from detaining people simply for being in the country illegally, in a ruling that faulted the local lawman for enforcing federal immigration law.

The 40-page written opinion by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow came on the same day he issued legal sanctions against Arpaio over destroyed documents.

The decisions come as a further blow for the controversial sheriff, who already has faced rebukes from the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Both rulings by Snow stemmed from a 2007 civil lawsuit against Arpaio and his agency, which accuses his officers of racial profiling of Latinos in traffic stops the judge found were conducted as immigration sweeps.

The judge also said officers with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department (MCSO), which covers Phoenix and surrounding areas, circulated emails that "compared Mexicans to dogs" and portrayed them "as drunks."

"Local law enforcement agencies, such as MCSO, may not enforce civil federal immigration law," Snow said in his written opinion.

He added that the sheriff's agency was "hereby enjoined" from detaining "any person based only on knowledge or reasonable belief, without more, that the person is unlawfully present within the United States."

In his ruling, Snow also granted a request by plaintiffs to certify the lawsuit as a class action.

He defined the class action as encompassing all Latinos "stopped, detained, questioned or searched" by Arpaio's officers "while driving or sitting in a vehicle" on roads or parking areas in Maricopa County.

EVIDENCE DESTRUCTION

Snow also cited the admitted destruction of emails and patrol records by Arpaio's office related to the case. He noted the sheriff's agency never contested those documents were shredded rather than lost.

Further proceedings in the case are expected to be decided by Snow rather than a jury because the plaintiffs have not requested a jury trial.

Snow's sanctions against Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office were outlined in written opinions issued a day after the judge heard oral arguments on the matter.

Separately last week, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report accusing Arpaio and his deputies of engaging in a "pervasive culture of discriminatory bias" and violating civil rights laws by singling out Latinos for unlawful detention and arrests.

The same day, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security barred Arpaio's deputies from screening jail inmates for their immigration status.

Arpaio was given until January 4 to agree to negotiations addressing the abuses cited by the Justice Department or face a request for a court order requiring compliance.

The Justice Department's report and the similar allegations raised in the lawsuit relate to Arpaio's controversial efforts to crack down on illegal immigration in Maricopa County.

Those efforts have earned him accolades in conservative political circles. Several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination sought his endorsement, which ultimately went to Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Arpaio has denied that his department engages in racial profiling and accused the Justice Department under President Barack Obama of undermining immigration enforcement.

A lawyer for Arpaio was not available for comment.

The sheriff was a strong supporter of controversial new Arizona law SB 1070, requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain and suspect of being in the country illegally.

That law is under challenge by the Obama administration in a case the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide next year.

Aside from the allegation of racial profiling, Arpaio also faces a firestorm over media reports that his office might have given short shrift to hundreds of sex-crime investigations.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)

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