PHOENIX — A federal judge will decide whether to impose sanctions against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office for its acknowledged destruction of police records in a lawsuit that accuses deputies of racially profiled countless Hispanics in immigration sweeps.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow heard arguments Thursday over whether the law enforcement agency should be punished for throwing away and shredding officers' records of traffic stops and for not handing over all its e-mails about the sweeps.
Since early 2008, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has run 13 immigration and crimes sweeps consisting of deputies and posse volunteers who flood an area of a city - in some cases heavily Latino areas - to seek out traffic violators and arrest other violators.
The lawsuit alleged that officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics who were in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.
Arpaio is known for tough jail policies, including housing inmates in tents in the desert, and pushing the bounds for how local law enforcement agencies can confront illegal immigration.
He has repeatedly denied the racial profiling allegations, saying people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that deputies found many of them were illegal immigrants.
Peter Kozinets, an attorney for the handful of Latinos who filed the lawsuit, said the traffic-stop records would have helped show that the agency used the stops to racially profile Latinos and that the e-mails would have provided details of how the immigration patrols were planned and carried out.
Kozinets asked the judge to draw an unspecified "adverse inference" about the actions of the sheriff's office, that depositions be reopened for sheriff's officials who have already given testimony and that the agency pay for the costs associated with reopening depositions and litigating the records dispute.
Timothy Casey, an attorney representing the sheriff's office, rejected that argument.
"My clients acted in good faith," he said.
Casey said the traffic-stop records were discarded, but that it was an honest error and that the sheriff's office has handed over some e-mails about the sweeps. An unknown number of other e-mails were deleted, and the agency has been unable to recover those written before October 2009.
After the racial profiling allegations were raised in the lawsuit, Kozinets said the sheriff's office destroyed "stat sheets." Those are documents that officers completed during the sweeps to record the number of contacts with the public, criminal arrests and civil citations, and provide a short narrative section where officers can briefly summarize arrests or other incidents.
Manuel Joseph Madrid, a supervisor of the sheriff's human smuggling squad that led the sweeps, said in a deposition that he threw away and shredded stat sheets after he tabulated totals and that he was never told to preserve them.
Through an unintentional mistake, a top official in the sheriff's office didn't send the request to keep documents to others within the office, Casey said.
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The judge said he would first rule on the sanctions request on the traffic-stop records and would later rule on the request about the e-mails after the sheriff's office turns over some e-mails that have been recovered.