PHOENIX (AP) — Lawyers for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio mounted a defense Wednesday against allegations that he and his deputies racially profile Latinos, drawing testimony from an officer who denied slamming a pregnant Hispanic woman stomach-first into her car during a traffic stop.
Deputy Francisco Gamboa testified at a trial aimed at settling the discriminatory policing allegations that he never laid a hand on Lorena Escamilla and never slammed her into her car during the September 2009 stop in her driveway.
Escamilla says the deputy discriminated against her with an unjustified stop, but Gamboa, who is Hispanic, said race played no part in his decision to pull her over.
Gamboa said he made the stop because the light near Escamilla's license plate wasn't working and he wanted to see what she was doing in an area known for drug trafficking. "It's probable cause to speak with the driver," Gamboa said.
Escamilla's baby was born healthy in 2010.
Arpaio has repeatedly denied charges that his department discriminates against Latinos and says his deputies only make stops when they think a crime has been committed.
But the group of Latinos who filed the civil lawsuit says that Maricopa County sheriff's deputies pull over some vehicles only to make immigration status checks.
The plaintiffs aren't seeking money. They instead want a declaration stating that Arpaio's office engages in discriminatory practices and an order requiring the department to make policy changes.
The lawsuit marks the first case in which the sheriff's office has been accused of systematic racial profiling and will serve as a bellwether for a similar yet broader civil rights lawsuit filed against Arpaio and his agency by the U.S. Justice Department.
If Arpaio loses the case, he won't face jail time or fines. If he wins, it will undercut the upcoming federal case, which makes similar allegations.
Testimony is expected to wrap up Thursday. It's not known when U.S. District Judge Murray Snow will issue his decision.
In testimony last week, Escamilla said she was mistreated when she was pulled over while driving home from night classes. She had described Gamboa's demeanor as hostile when she refused to agree to a search of her car and said she didn't break any traffic laws that would have caused her to get pulled over.
Eventually, a drug-sniffing dog was brought in to search her car, but no drugs were found. She was cited for lacking proof of insurance and released, though she disputed the ticket. Escamilla said she was not aware if her license plate light had been out and was not ticketed for such a violation.
Gamboa characterized Escamilla's behavior as erratic, saying she initially failed to pull over once he turned on his sirens, wouldn't listen to his commands and kept asking why she was pulled over, even though he had already told her.
Gamboa couldn't recall why he called a drug dog to the scene and pointed out that he called emergency workers from the Phoenix Fire Department to tend to Escamilla because her breathing became heavier during the stop.