By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday issued legal sanctions against high profile Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for destroying documents in a civil rights lawsuit accusing him and his department of racially profiling Latinos.
Citing the admitted destruction of emails and patrol records by Arpaio's office, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow said he would punish the department by drawing certain incriminating conclusions of fact against the agency when it comes time to rule on the suit.
The case is expected to be decided by Snow rather than a jury because the plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief only and have not requested a jury trial.
Snow's sanctions against Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office were outlined in a nine-page opinion issued a day after the judge heard oral arguments on the matter.
Separately last week, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report accusing Arpaio and his deputies of engaging in a "pervasive culture of discriminatory bias" and violating civil rights laws by singling out Latinos for unlawful detention and arrests.
The same day, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security barred Arpaio's deputies from screening jail inmates for their immigration status.
Arpaio was given until January 4 to agree to negotiations addressing the abuses cited by the Justice Department or face a request for a court order requiring compliance.
Friday's ruling stems from a proposed class-action lawsuit filed in 2007 against Arpaio and his agency, which accuses his officers of racial profiling of Latinos in traffic stops and immigration sweeps.
The Justice Department's report and the similar allegations raised in the lawsuit relate to Arpaio's controversial efforts to crack down on illegal immigration in Maricopa County, which covers Phoenix and surrounding areas.
Those efforts have earned him accolades in conservative political circles. But critics say he has overstepped his powers as a local official and that immigration enforcement should be left to the federal government.
Arpaio has denied that his department engages in racial profiling and accused the Justice Department under President Barack Obama of undermining immigration enforcement.
Snow said in his written opinion that Arpaio's office intentionally destroyed key documents on arrests in the civil lawsuit against him, and he noted the sheriff's agency never contested those documents were shredded rather than lost.
The judge also said certain emails recovered in the case show circumstantial evidence of "discriminatory intent" by the sheriff's office, and that he planned to draw some "adverse inferences" against Arpaio and his deputies.
Those include that officers "did not follow a 'zero tolerance' policy requiring them to stop all traffic offenders," and that during these operations a higher number of suspected illegal immigrants were arrested, the judge wrote.
Snow also said he could infer that at least some of the reported citizen complaints that prompted special immigration-enforcement sweeps by Arpaio's department referred to "'Mexicans,' 'day laborers' or 'illegal immigrants' but did not provide a description of any criminal activity."
A lawyer for Arpaio was not immediately available for comment.
Touting himself as "America's toughest sheriff," Arpaio has been embraced by Republican politicians as a hero of efforts to curb illegal immigration. Several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination sought his endorsement, which ultimately went to Texas Governor Rick Perry.
The sheriff also was a strong supporter of controversial new Arizona law, SB 1070, requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain and suspect of being in the country illegally.
That law is under challenge by the Obama administration in a case the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide next year.
Aside from the allegation of racial profiling, Arpaio also faces a firestorm over media reports that his office might have given short shrift to hundreds of sex-crime investigations.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)