America's self-styled "toughest sheriff," Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, has made headlines for tactics like reinstituting chain gangs and incarcerating inmates in tents. But Arpaio's approach to law enforcement crosses the line between theatrical and illegal, according to California pro bono counsel for plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit.
Set for trial later this month, the class action alleges a widespread practice of stopping Latino motorists in the Phoenix area based on their race and investigating their immigration status. (Melendres v. Arpaio,
No. CV-07-2513 (D. Ariz.).)
The plaintiffs - five named individuals and the Somos America community coalition - contend this violates the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments. Arpaio denies that his department engages in racial profiling.
The U.S. Department of Justice, after an effort to reach an agreement with the sheriff, filed its own lawsuit against Arpaio, the Sheriff's Office and Maricopa County in May, making the same allegations of racial profiling in traffic stops.
Covington & Burling stepped in as lead counsel in June 2010, and its northern California offices have contributed many hours of pro bono work.
"Stopping this injustice fits squarely within Covington's commitment to public service," says Andrew C. Byrnes, a partner in the firm's Redwood Shores office. Also working on the case are partners Stanley Young and Tammy Albarrán.
The plaintiffs are also represented by the American Civil Liberties Union - including Cecillia Wang, the San Francisco-based director of its Immigrants' Rights Project, and the ACLU of Arizona - and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, including regional counsel Nancy Ramirez, based in Los Angeles.
"We are looking forward to trial," says Covington's Young, who is also based in Redwood Shores. "Everyone in the community suffers when racial profiling goes on."