PHOENIX — Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s anti-illegal immigration patrols in Arizona are taking center stage in federal court in Phoenix.
A lawyer for a group of Latinos who filed a civil lawsuit against his department said in opening statements Thursday that the evidence will show that Arpaio and his deputies racially profiled Hispanics.
‘‘It’s our view that the problem starts at the top,’’ attorney Stan Young said.
Tim Casey, who is defending Arpaio, said in his opening that the patrols were properly planned out and executed. He said they exceeded police standards. He said, ‘‘race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the traffic stops.’’ Arpaio did not attend Thursday’s session.
The plaintiffs are not seeking money damages. They want a declaration that Arpaio’s office racially profiles and an order that requires it to make changes to prevent what they said is discriminatory policing.
The lawsuit filed by the Latinos will serve as a precursor to a US Justice Department case that alleges a broader range of civil rights violations by Arpaio’s office. Although not involved in Thursday’s case, a DOJ lawyer leading the agency’s civil rights case watched the trial.
For years, Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America, has vehemently denied allegations that his deputies in Arizona’s most populous county racially profile Latinos in his trademark patrols.
The plaintiffs say Arpaio’s officers based some traffic stops on the race of Hispanics who were in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.
‘‘He is not free to say whatever he wants,’’ said Dan Pochoda, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, one of the groups that pushed the lawsuit against Arpaio. ‘‘He will be called as a witness.’’
If Arpaio loses the civil case, he won’t face jail time or fines.
At a late June hearing, Casey said the sheriff wanted the trial so he could prove his critics wrong and remove the stigma that the racial profiling allegation carries.
‘‘What we want is resolution,’’ Casey said.
The DOJ lawsuit makes many of the same racial profiling allegations, but goes further to say that Arpaio’s office retaliated against its critics, punished Latino jail inmates with limited English skills for speaking Spanish and failed to adequately investigate a large number of sex-crimes cases.
No trial date in that case has been set.
Arizona State University law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick said that if Arpaio loses the case now being tried, the verdict would likely stand as the finding on whether Arpaio’s office racially profiles — and the sheriff likely wouldn’t be able to re-litigate the profiling allegations in the DOJ case. But Arpaio could dispute the other allegations, Hessick said.
If Arpaio wins, the DOJ wouldn’t be prevented from bringing its racial profiling allegations to trial.
Still, the judge overseeing that case might be inclined to rule against the federal agency on the racial profiling claim because there would be a fellow judge who concluded that the facts don’t support a ruling that Arpaio’s office discriminated against Latinos.
Arpaio has said the DOJ lawsuit is a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration as a way to court Latino voters in a presidential election year. DOJ officials say the department began its initial civil rights inquiry of Arpaio’s office during the Bush administration and notified the sheriff of its formal investigation a few months after Obama took office.
Arpaio has staked his reputation on immigration enforcement and, in turn, won support and financial contributors from people across the country who helped him build a $4 million campaign war chest.
The patrols have brought allegations that Arpaio himself ordered some of them not based on reports of crime but letters from Arizonans who complained about people with dark skin congregating in an area or speaking Spanish.
Some of the people who filed the lawsuit were stopped by deputies in regular patrols, while others were stopped in his special immigration sweeps. During the sweeps, 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.
Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by his office since January 2008, according to figures provided by Arpaio’s office, which hasn’t conducted any of the special patrols since October.