PHOENIX - A judge has dismissed an Arizona sheriff's office from a lawsuit alleging the agency carried out a pattern of discrimination against Latinos in its immigration patrols but rejected a request to dismiss Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio from the case.
The ruling filed Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver marks a net loss for Arpaio and means the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against the sheriff and Maricopa County can move forward in court.
The judge, in dismissing the sheriff's office, said there was no law giving the sheriff's office the right to be sued as a separate legal entity. Still, Silver rejected arguments to dismiss the sheriff and the county from the case.
The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in May accusing Arpaio's office of racially profiling Latinos in its trademark immigration patrols, retaliating against its critics and punishing Latino jail inmates with limited English skills for speaking Spanish.
The lawsuit also accused Arpaio's office of launching some immigration patrols based on citizen letters that complained about people with dark skin congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish but ultimately never reported a crime.
The sheriff denies the allegations, saying people are stopped if deputies have probable cause to believe they have committed crimes and that deputies later find many of them are illegal immigrants.
The Justice Department isn't seeking monetary damages and instead wants a declaration that Arpaio's officers use racial profiling and an order requiring policy changes. If Arpaio loses the case, he won't face jail time or fines.
A similar lawsuit filed by a small number of Latinos who alleged racial profiling in Arpaio's immigration patrols was tried this summer by a federal judge, who hasn't yet issued a ruling. That lawsuit will serve as a precursor for the Justice Department's broader civil rights lawsuit against Arpaio.
The sheriff's office and Arpaio's lawyers didn't immediately respond to requests at midday Thursday for comment on the ruling.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which lined up a private law firm to represent the county, issued a statement saying it's reviewing the ruling and still believes that key points in the county's dismissal request still need to be addressed.
The Justice Department released a statement, saying that considering "the discriminatory treatment that Latinos in Maricopa County continue to face to this day, the United States welcomes the court's ruling and is prepared to proceed with the judicial process so that it may be resolved in as swift a manner as possible."
Arpaio's lawyers argued that claims the agency treats Latinos differently than other people should be dismissed against the sheriff because the Justice Department failed to provide enough statistical evidence to back up their claims.
Silver rejected the request, saying a lawsuit doesn't have to have alleged statistical evidence at this early point in the case where a lawsuit's targets are seeking to have the case thrown out.
The sheriff also sought to be dismissed from part of the case by arguing that a discrimination ban in federal law doesn't cover language proficiency, meaning that language isn't a substitute for national origin.
Silver wrote that federal regulations hold that language-based discrimination is a form of national-origin discrimination and that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the ban on national-origin discrimination covers discrimination against people with limited English skills.
The county itself sought to be dismissed, arguing it has no authority over the sheriff and therefore has power to stop the alleged discrimination by the sheriff's office and Arpaio.
The judge wrote that the county can be held responsible from constitutional violations resulting from a sheriff's policies.