By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona's controversial Joe Arpaio, who calls himself America's toughest sheriff, went on trial Thursday in a class-action lawsuit alleging he discriminates against Latinos and legal immigrants in a zeal to crack down on illegal immigration.
The case will test whether the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) can target the undocumented in immigration sweeps without racially profiling Hispanic citizens.
The 80-year-old Arpaio, who is seeking re-election to a sixth term in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of tough immigration laws in the Mexico-border state and his volunteer posse's investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
The sheriff's office also faces federal allegations of widespread discrimination and a criminal abuse of power probe.
Arpaio was not in court on Thursday when lawyers for both sides in the class action made opening statements before Judge Murray Snow in the non-jury bench trial at U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
"A fundamental value of our nation is equal protection under laws, regardless of race or ethnicity," plaintiff attorney Stanley Young said.
"We will argue ... the MCSO has engaged in racial discrimination, particularly saturation patrols have led to the different treatment under the law," he said.
Tim Casey, a lawyer for Arpaio and the sheriff's office, said his side would prove there was no such profiling as alleged by the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit nor was there discrimination by the office in three stops cited in the suit.
"We have five plaintiffs on three stops. The evidence will show race and ethnicity had nothing to do with their traffic stops ... Race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the planning and execution" of the stops, he said.
The trial focuses attention once again on Arizona, which claimed headlines last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key element of the state's crackdown on illegal immigrants requiring police to investigate those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.
Supporters said the law was needed because the U.S. federal government had failed to secure the porous southwest border with Mexico. Obama's administration challenged it in court, saying the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government sole authority over immigration policy.
Arpaio faces a separate, broader lawsuit lodged by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work and a disregard for minority rights by him and county officials.
Several supporters and opponents of the sheriff gathered outside the court from early morning toting flags and placards reading: "Sheriff Joe does immigration sweeps, makes drug busts, what more do you want?" and "No to hate, no to fear" and "God forgive Arpaio." Continued...