PHOENIX A federal judge on Friday found hardline Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio had violated the constitutional rights of Latino drivers in his crackdown on illegal immigration, and ordered him to stop using race as a factor in law enforcement decisions.
The ruling against the Maricopa County sheriff came in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by Hispanic drivers that tested whether police can target illegal immigrants without racially profiling Hispanic citizens and legal residents.
U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow ruled that the sheriff's policies violated the drivers' constitutional rights and ordered his office to cease using race or ancestry as a grounds to stop, detain or hold occupants of vehicles - some of them in crime sweeps dubbed "saturation patrols."
"The great weight of the evidence is that all types of saturation patrols at issue in this case incorporated race as a consideration into their operations," Snow said in a written ruling.
He added that race had factored into which vehicles the deputies decided to stop, and into who they decided to investigate for immigration violations.
The suit contended that Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," and his officers violated the constitutional rights of both U.S. citizens and legal immigrants alike in their zeal to crack down on people they believe to be in the country illegally.
In testimony during the non-jury trial last year, Arpaio said he was against racial profiling and denied his office arrested people because of the color of their skin.
The sheriff, who won re-election to a sixth term in office in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws in the state, which borders Mexico, as well as an investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's U.S. birth certificate.
The suit was brought against Arpaio and his office on behalf of five Hispanic drivers who say they were stopped by deputies because of their ethnicity, which Arpaio denied.
The plaintiffs, which include the Somos America immigrants' rights coalition and all Latino drivers stopped by the sheriff's office since 2007, were seeking corrective action but not monetary damages.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor and David Schwartz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)