By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Veteran Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio, self-described as "America's toughest sheriff," denied on Tuesday that his deputies targeted people because of the color of their skin in a controversial crackdown on illegal immigration.
Arpaio, sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, was testifying in a class-action lawsuit to test whether police can target illegal immigrants without racially profiling Hispanic citizens and legal residents.
"I am against anyone racial profiling ... today as in my 50 years in law enforcement," Arpaio, a veteran lawman who recently turned 80, told the court during cross-examination.
Arpaio was also asked about a news release he issued after a sweep targeting illegal immigrants in 2008, in which he noted criticism from former Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon that his agency went after "brown-skinned people with cracked windshields."
"We do not arrest people because of the color of their skin," said Arpaio, speaking in a slightly hoarse voice due to a recent case of influenza.
The plaintiffs' counsel, Stanley Young, asked Arpaio if he believed illegal immigrants entering Maricopa County had certain appearances and whether this included brown skin color. Arpaio replied: "No."
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 border state with Mexico, as well as his investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
The suit was brought against Arpaio and his office on behalf of five Hispanic plaintiffs who say they were stopped by deputies because they were Latino. The defense denies this.
The trial focuses attention again on Arizona, which claimed headlines 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.
The Obama administration had challenged the crackdown in court, saying the U.S. Constitution gave the federal government sole authority over immigration policy.
Arpaio faces a separate, broader lawsuit lodged by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work and a disregard for minority rights by him and county officials.
Protesters from both sides of the debate gathered outside the court from early morning toting flags and placards. One read "No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police." Another read: "We Support Sheriff Joe" and "Don't believe the liberal media."
Phoenix police arrested four protesters who blocked a road outside the courthouse named for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
AMERICAN DREAM FOR EVERYONE?
The plaintiffs in the suit include the Somos America immigrants' rights coalition and all Latino drivers stopped by the office since 2007.
Last week, the court heard testimony from two witnesses who said they believed they had been stopped by deputies because they were Hispanic. David Vasquez, 47, testified he felt he was "pulled over for ‘driving while brown.'"
On Tuesday, Young used the five-term sheriff's previous public statements against him to suggest a pattern of prejudice against Mexicans. He cited a statement at the time of a swine flu outbreak in Mexico, in which Arpaio noted that some illegal immigrants in his custody were from an area south of Mexico City where he said the flu had killed more than 150 people.
"You were associating people from Mexico with disease, is that right?" Young asked Arpaio, to which he replied "No." He said that he was "concerned" that the detainees "were not coming through checkpoints" on the border.
The court also heard that in a book - "Joe's Law, America's Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs and Everything Else that Threatens America" - Arpaio wrote all immigrants "exclusive of those from Mexico, hold to certain hopes and truths." Arpaio attributed the statement to a co-author. When asked if he believed the American Dream was for everyone, he said: "Yes."
The American Dream refers to the U.S. ideal of prosperity and upward mobility won through hard work.
Young also produced documents to argue Arpaio's immigration sweeps were conceived in late 2005 after he received a letter from the Minutemen, a civilian border patrol group, asking why law enforcement agencies in Arizona refused to question day laborers about their immigration status.
The jury trial before Judge Murray Snow is expected to run until August 2.
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Eric Walsh)