PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio, who styles himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” said on Wednesday he would appeal a federal court ruling that found his agency had engaged in racial profiling of Hispanic drivers in its zeal to crack down on illegal immigration.
“One hundred of my deputies were authorized and trained by the federal government ... to enforce federal immigration laws,” the Maricopa County sheriff said in a video posted on YouTube.
“Now the federal court has ruled that federal training was unconstitutional and it led to racial profiling. We will appeal this ruling,” Arpaio said.
Arpaio has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws in Arizona, which borders Mexico, and an investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama’s U.S. birth certificate.
A federal judge ruled on Friday that 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 came in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by Hispanic drivers that tested whether police could target illegal immigrants without racially profiling U.S. citizens and legal residents of Hispanic origin.
U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow found that the sheriff and his office had violated the drivers’ constitutional rights and ordered them to cease using race or ancestry as grounds to stop, detain or hold vehicle occupants.
Arpaio said in the statement that he had ordered his deputies to stop detaining people they believed to be in the country without authorization whom they could not arrest on state charges.
Counsel for the plaintiffs - five Latino drivers who said they had been stopped by deputies because of their ethnicity -hailed the ruling on Friday as “an important victory” that would resound far beyond Maricopa County.
Arpaio, who has always denied charges of racial profiling, has been the subject of other probes and lawsuits. In August, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona said it had closed a criminal investigation into accusations of financial misconduct by Arpaio, and it declined to bring charges.
A separate U.S. Justice Department investigation and lawsuit related to accusations of civil rights abuses by Arpaio’s office is ongoing.
Arizona has been at the heart of a bitter national debate over immigration since Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a 2010 crackdown on illegal immigration that was subsequently challenged by the federal government.
The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed to stand a part of the law that permits police to question people they stop about their immigration status.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Toni Reinhold