When the justices of the United States Supreme Court allowed Arizona to move forward with the portion of a tough new immigration law that allows police to demand proof of a suspect's citizenship, they did so with some caution.
That caution is taking center stage as a class action civil rights lawsuit tests whether Sheriff Joe Arpaio's controversial crime sweeps violate the constitutional rights of people who look "Mexican." The trial began at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in federal court in Phoenix.
It was standing room only. No cameras were allowed and there's no jury, just a group of attorneys, witnesses and a judge. Arpaio was not present at Thursday morning's proceedings.
The ACLU represents the plaintiffs, a group of citizens and legal residents who claim they were detained, targeted and/or harassed because of the way they look or their ethnic background.
The ACLU is arguing that the sheriff's office set up a dragnet for illegal immigrants, failed to follow established guidelines for anti-discriminatory policing and that citizens and legal residents got caught in the middle.
The defense Thursday morning was grilling an expert who said studies show 80 percent of traffic stops are because of race. Dr. Ralph Taylor, professor of criminal justice at Temple University, testified if an incident took place during the time a saturation patrol was in effect, there was a high likelihood that the name checked would be Hispanic.
Tim Casey, who represents the defense, maintained the plaintiffs have no evidence that race does not play a factor in any of their traffic stops. Race and ethnicity had nothing to do with any stops of any individuals, he said. Casey added there has never been a saturation patrol that has not been based on criminal activity.
"Facts are facts, statistics are statistics and they can be interpreted," said Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. "But I thought they were very telling."
Toward the end of the day, two men who claimed they were racially profiled took the stand. One said during a crime sweep in Mesa, he was stopped and the first thing the deputy asked was if he spoke English.
The other witness said he was stopped along with five other drivers for passing a road closed signed. But he was the only one ticketed. He is Hispanic. The four others were reportedly white.
It is expected that during the course of the trial several more of those people who claimed they were victims of racial profiling will take the stand.
Arpaio is expected to testify on Tuesday.
Deputies will be called to testify on what they've seen and been instructed to do when it comes to race.
Ultimately, this case will be one step toward answering the Supreme Court's last remaining question about SB 1070. That is, whether local police can enforce immigration law without violating the civil rights of citizens.
The case is called Melendres v. Arpaio. You can find a link to the ACLU's web page on the case here.
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