PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. Latino citizen fought back tears at an Arizona sheriff’s racial profiling trial on Wednesday as he described being pulled over by a deputy and having his groin frisked during a traffic stop he said was motivated by his ethnicity.
Contractor Daniel Magos, 67, testified at the civil trial of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio that he was pulled over by a deputy as he drove with his U.S.-born wife to meet a client in December 2009, ostensibly because of a missing license plate on the trailer of his pickup truck.
Magos described the deputy “yelling” at him and his wife during the stop, at which he provided his license and insurance papers and declared a legally held handgun.
Told to spread his legs while being searched, Magos fought back tears when he was asked to describe how he felt being patted down in the underarms and groin.
“Humiliated, worthless, defenseless,” he said of the morning traffic stop in the Phoenix valley, which did not result in any charges or citations.
Arpaio, who styles himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” is on trial in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in a class-action lawsuit that will test whether police can target illegal immigrants without racially profiling Hispanic citizens and legal residents.
The 80-year-old lawman testified under oath on Tuesday he was against “anyone racial profiling” and denied his office arrested “people because of the color of their skin.”
The sheriff, who is seeking re-election to a sixth term in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws in the border state with Mexico, as well as his investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama’s U.S. birth certificate.
The suit was brought against Arpaio and his office on behalf of five Hispanics who say they were stopped by deputies because they were Latino, which Arpaio denies.
The trial focuses attention on Arizona, which was in the news 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.
The Obama administration challenged the crackdown in court, saying the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government sole authority over immigration policy.
‘LOST RESPECT FOR THE SHERIFF’
Arpaio faces a separate, broader lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work and a disregard for minority rights.
The plaintiffs in the suit include the Somos America immigrants’ rights coalition and all Latino drivers stopped by the sheriff’s office since 2007.
Magos, who was born in Mexico and took up U.S. citizenship 45 years ago, said the deputy later apologized and told him the stop “had nothing to do with racial profiling,” which Magos disputed.
“I told him that’s exactly what it was.” Magos testified, saying he took down the deputy’s name and badge number, and days later lodged a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Asked if the incident changed his view of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, or MCSO, he said: “I lost respect for the MCSO’s deputies and sheriff.” Asked if he felt he was treated differently for his ethnicity, he said “Yes.”
The court also heard testimony from deputy Michael Kikes, a motorcycle officer who took part in an immigration sweep over two days in March 2008.
Kikes described pulling over a sport utility vehicle with U.S.-born Hispanic driver Manuel Nieto at the wheel during the operation. Asked if the arrest, which resulted in no charges, was motivated by race or ethnicity, he said: “No.”
Taking the stand, Nieto told the court he was born in Illinois and is the father of five children. Asked if he felt he had been racially profiled, he said: “I do believe so. ... I wasn’t arrested to be given a traffic violation, so I believe I was racially profiled.”
Also called to testify was Brett Palmer, a sheriff’s office sergeant who supervised a human smuggling unit that took part in an immigration sweep in the northeast Phoenix valley in May 2008.
Under cross-examination, Palmer noted that 17 of 20 people arrested in the two-day sweep had Hispanic last names. Asked by plaintiffs’ counsel Cecillia Wang if it piqued concerns about racial profiling, he replied: “No m‘am, it did not.”
The jury trial before Judge Murray Snow is expected to run until August 2.
Reporting By Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham