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'America's toughest sheriff' trial: Arizona deputy says he risked his life for illegal immigrant

Joshua Lott / Reuters

A protester holds a sign with a picture of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, during day one of Apraio's and his sheriff's department civil rights trial in Phoenix, Arizona on July 19.

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- A deputy from a controversial Arizona sheriff's office countered accusations of racial profiling on Thursday, telling a court that he had risked his life to rescue a Latino illegal immigrant from armed kidnappers.

Carlos Rangel told a civil trial alleging Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office engage in racially profiling Latinos that, at the behest of federal immigration police, he went undercover to play the role of the immigrant's relative to meet kidnappers, one of whom pointed a gun at him.

The kidnappers were arrested and the immigrant was released.

Asked by defense lawyer Tom Liddy if he was an "anti-Hispanic bigot," Rangel answered: "No. I am not."

The Justice Department suit accuses Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio of systematically violating the civil rights of Latinos. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," and his office are defendants in a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix that will test whether police can target illegal immigrants without racially profiling Hispanic citizens and legal residents.

The 80-year-old lawman testified this week he was against racial profiling and denied his office arrested people because of the color of their skin.

The case will serve as a precursor to a civil rights lawsuit filed by the federal government, which is much broader.

Feds sue Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, alleging racial profiling

The plaintiffs, a group of Latinos, say they were discriminated against during sweeps to flush out criminals and illegal immigrants in Maricopa County, which includes the metropolitan Phoenix area. During such sweeps, sheriff's deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.

'Dark-skinned people'
The group accused Arpaio of launching some sweeps based on emails and letters from residents who complained that "dark-skinned people" were congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish. The group says deputies in the sweeps pulled over Hispanics without probable cause, making the stops only to inquire about the immigration status of the people in the vehicles.

The sheriff has said that people are stopped only if authorities have probable cause to believe they have committed crimes and that deputies later find many are illegal immigrants.

Arpaio's office maintained that illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted since January 2008, according to figures provided by the sheriff's department, which hasn't conducted any such patrols since October.

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 state, as well as his investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.

Arizona 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.

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 civil lawsuit was lodged in the name of Manuel Ortega Melendres, one of five Hispanics who say they were stopped by deputies because they were Latino, which Arpaio denies. It was later opened to all Latino drivers stopped since 2007.

Arizona Sheriff Arpaio under scrutiny in racial profiling case

Melendres, a Mexican tourist on a valid visa in a truck was pulled over ostensibly because the white driver was speeding.

Rangel, who arrested Melendres, was asked by plaintiffs' counsel if he had questioned the driver. He told the court he had no grounds to investigate the driver.

When asked by Liddy if he had ever racially profiled anyone while working at the sheriff's office, Rangel, a 13-year veteran of the force, replied: "No".

In later testimony, a Hispanic woman who is a U.S. citizen told the court she was pulled over by a sheriff's deputy in 2009 on suspicion she had drugs, alcohol and weapons in her car as she drove home from studying at a Phoenix valley university.

Despite telling the deputy she was pregnant, Lorena Escamilla said, she was thrown roughly onto the back seat of his patrol car. A subsequent search of her car did not find any drugs. While she was cited for failure to produce identification and not having insurance, charges against her were dropped.

McJail? Sheriff's 'Tent City' gets McDonald's-like number 'served' sign

Escamilla said she later filed a charge of assault with Phoenix police department against the deputy and has since been fearful of being pulled over by the officer.

Also testifying was a Hispanic mother who was in a vehicle with a group of Boy Scouts that was pulled over in 2009 by a deputy for speeding while returning from the Grand Canyon.

Diona Solis, who is also a U.S. citizen, said the deputy was "rude" and "mocking" and unnecessarily requested identification from the boys in the car aged 8 to 11, among them her son.

"The boys were minors ... I thought it was unreasonable to ask them for IDs ... they hadn't done anything wrong," she said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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