A judge has upheld two Arizona identity theft laws that were used by Sheriff Joe Arpaio to conduct business raids in which hundreds of immigrant workers were arrested on charges that they relied on fraudulent IDs to get jobs.
The decision late Tuesday by U.S. District Judge David Campbell rejected arguments by immigrant rights advocates that the laws violated equal-protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.
The judge agreed with the challengers' argument that state authorities were barred from basing such prosecutions on a federal employment eligibility document, which was used in 10 percent of the cases in Maricopa County. But Campbell refused to broaden the ban by making it apply to any fraudulent document that an immigrant worker presents to an employer.
The laws were the legal underpinning of more than 80 business raids by Arpaio's office, leading to the arrests of 800 workers, most of whom were immigrants. Other police agencies made such arrests over the years, but Arpaio's office was the only one to conduct business raids.
The raids were the sheriff's last major foothold in immigration enforcement after the courts and federal government reined in his immigration powers in recent years. Nearly two years ago, the sheriff voluntarily disbanded his squad that focused on the ID theft cases.
Paul Penzone, the retired Phoenix police sergeant who unseated Arpaio earlier this month, has no plans to resume the raids, but will work to combat identity theft when he takes over in January, said Penzone spokeswoman Stacy Pearson.
The 2007 and 2008 laws were put on hold two years ago, but Maricopa County prosecutors have since resumed their enforcement after an appeals court cleared the way for the statutes to be used again.
It's unclear if the immigrant rights groups that challenged the laws will appeal Tuesday's decision.
"We disagree with parts of the decision where the court ruled against us and are considering all available options," said Annie Lai, one of the attorneys leading the challenge.
The laws were part of a package of legislation that sought to confront employers who hire immigrants who are in the country illegally -- and are blamed for fueling the nation's border woes.
Critics say the enforcement of the laws focused too much on workers and not enough on their employers. Prosecutors say the laws were effective in holding people accountable for causing hassles for victims of identity theft.
Campbell concluded that the laws, while used mostly against immigrants, weren't motivated solely by ill feelings toward immigrants, saying they also were passed to combat Arizona's growing identity theft problem. "Arizona was addressing a major criminal problem that inflicted serious harm on Arizona's residents," Campbell wrote.
The judge said the challengers were correct in saying federal law bars the use of I-9 employment eligibility forms in such prosecutions.
Two years ago, Maricopa County revised its policies to bar prosecutors from relying on the I-9 as evidence and, as a result, got dismissals in some pending ID theft cases. They have said they have filed work-related ID theft cases by using documents other than the I-9.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whose offices defended the law, applauded the ruling as necessary for battling identity theft.
"At the heart of this very complex litigation was the simple argument that it is our responsibility to protect Maricopa County residents from identity theft, pursue justice on their behalf, and hold offenders accountable," Montgomery said.
Arpaio's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.