By Jacques Billeaud
The Associated Press
PHOENIX — A federal judge has found grounds for sanctioning an Arizona sheriff's office for its acknowledged destruction of records in a lawsuit that accuses deputies of racially profiling countless Hispanics in immigration patrols.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow held off on imposing the sanctions against the office of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the Friday ruling, but indicted he would do so at a later date once related issues were ironed out.
Since early 2008, 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 offenders.
The handful of Latinos who filed the lawsuit against Arpaio's office 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 canvas tents, and pushing the bounds for how local law enforcement agencies can confront illegal immigration.
The U.S. Justice Department said it's investigating his office for alleged discrimination and for unconstitutional searches and seizures, but won't provide any details of its examination. The sheriff believes the inquiry is focused on his immigration efforts.
Arpaio 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. It was only afterward that deputies found many of them were illegal immigrants, he has said.
Some sheriff's officials have acknowledged deleting their e-mails about the patrols and throwing away and shredding officers' records of traffic stops made during the sweeps.
Snow said the sheriff's office was negligent for not holding onto the documents and that the failure to preserve them is enough to justify sanctions. The judge asked plaintiff's attorneys to suggest unspecified "adverse inferences" that could be drawn from the destruction of officers' records of traffic stops made during the sweeps.
Peter Kozinets, one of those attorneys, said Saturday that the document destruction deprived his clients of records that would have shown deputies were selective in whom they approached during the sweeps.
The sheriff's office said the destruction was an honest error that sprung from a top official not telling others in his office to preserve the documents.
The office also said the traffic-stop records were thrown away after supervisors tabulated statistics from them and that thousands of other documents have been handed over.
"We thought the ruling was extremely fair and we are pleased to cooperate," said Dave Hendershott, chief deputy of the sheriff's office. "It clearly shows that the judge understood that it was an unintentional oversight. We are very pleased with the ruling."
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Snow also said that plaintiff's attorneys can again depose Arpaio to question him about his own 800-page immigration file, which was covered by a documents request but wasn't handed over before his first deposition in mid-December.