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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona's controversial Joe Arpaio, who calls himself America's toughest sheriff, went on trial Thursday in a class-action lawsuit alleging he discriminates against Latinos and legal immigrants in a zeal to crack down on illegal immigration.
The case will test whether the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) can target the undocumented in immigration sweeps without racially profiling Hispanic citizens.
The 80-year-old Arpaio, who is seeking re-election to a sixth term in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of tough immigration laws in the Mexico-border state and his volunteer posse's investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
The sheriff's office also faces federal allegations of widespread discrimination and a criminal abuse of power probe.
Arpaio was not in court on Thursday when lawyers for both sides in the class action made opening statements before Judge Murray Snow in the non-jury bench trial at U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
"A fundamental value of our nation is equal protection under laws, regardless of race or ethnicity," plaintiff attorney Stanley Young said.
"We will argue ... the MCSO has engaged in racial discrimination, particularly saturation patrols have led to the different treatment under the law," he said.
Tim Casey, a lawyer for Arpaio and the sheriff's office, said his side would prove there was no such profiling as alleged by the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit nor was there discrimination by the office in three stops cited in the suit.
"We have five plaintiffs on three stops. The evidence will show race and ethnicity had nothing to do with their traffic stops ... Race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the planning and execution" of the stops, he said.
The trial focuses attention once again on Arizona, which claimed headlines last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key element of the state's crackdown on illegal immigrants requiring police to investigate those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.
Supporters said the law was needed because the U.S. federal government had failed to secure the porous southwest border with Mexico. Obama's administration challenged it in court, saying the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government sole authority over immigration policy.
Arpaio faces a separate, broader lawsuit lodged by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work and a disregard for minority rights by him and county officials.
Several supporters and opponents of the sheriff gathered outside the court from early morning toting flags and placards reading: "Sheriff Joe does immigration sweeps, makes drug busts, what more do you want?" and "No to hate, no to fear" and "God forgive Arpaio."
Lawyers for the plaintiffs called Ralph Taylor, a professor and criminal justice expert at Temple University in Philadelphia, who analyzed racial and ethnic patterns from traffic stops carried out by the office from 2007 to 2009, including about a dozen "saturation patrols" in the Phoenix valley.
Taylor told the court that when an officer ran a name check on the day of a "major" sweep there was "a much higher likelihood" the name run would be Hispanic than non-Hispanic. He also testified that when an officer ran a check of at least one Hispanic name, the stop would take about two minutes longer.
Among the plaintiffs is Mexican tourist Manuel Ortega Melendres, who was a passenger in a car pulled over by Arpaio's deputies during a sweep for illegal immigrants, ostensibly because the vehicle's driver was speeding.
But moments later Ortega Melendres was arrested, despite having a valid visa and producing identification, while the vehicle's white driver was neither cited nor taken into custody.
The other plaintiffs are Hispanics also stopped by deputies and the Somos America immigrants' rights coalition. It was later expanded to include all Latino drivers stopped by the office since 2007.
It was unclear when Snow would return a verdict. Testimony was scheduled to run until August 2.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman