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Arizona halts trying immigrants as conspirators

Action follows federal ruling blocking policy

The US Border Patrol detained a group of immigrants in Sasabe, Ariz., in January 2007.

Associated Press/File

The US Border Patrol detained a group of immigrants in Sasabe, Ariz., in January 2007.

PHOENIX — Arizona’s most populous county on Monday halted new prosecutions of people under the state’s immigrant smuggling law following a federal judge’s order.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery ordered the freeze in response to a ruling last week by US District Judge Robert Broomfield.

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The judge on Friday blocked the county from using a policy that charges, as conspirators, people who paid to be smuggled into the United States.

The ruling says the county’s interpretation of the 2005 state immigration law conflicts with federal law and cannot be enforced by Sheriff Joe Arpaio or county prosecutors.

Broomfield said the policy criminalizes actions that federal law treats as a civil matter. ‘‘It is hard to imagine a more blatant conflict than that,’’ he said in his 60-page ruling.

Lawyers for the activists and others who challenged the policy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

However, Peter Schey, a lawyer for the activists, said the ruling ‘‘will hopefully bring to an end a mean-spirited and short-sighted policy that has severely harmed a large number of immigrants during the past several years in an entirely unconstitutional manner.’’

Broomfield’s ruling is the latest in a series of restrictions placed by the courts and the federal government on immigration enforcement efforts by Arpaio.

Seventy-five percent of the approximately 1,800 people charged under the smuggling law in Maricopa County through June 2011 were facing counts of conspiring to sneak themselves into the country.

Immigrant rights advocates have contended that the statute was intended for often-violent smugglers, not their customers, and that the prosecution policy was preempted by federal immigration law.

Lawyers defending Maricopa prosecutors and Arpaio argued their interpretation did not conflict with federal law. They also pointed out that Arizona law allows people to be convicted of conspiracy even when they can’t be convicted of the underlying crime itself.

The state smuggling law was passed in 2005 as lawmakers responded to voter frustration over Arizona’s role as the nation’s busiest immigrant smuggling hub. It marked the state’s second major immigration law and was followed in 2010 with a wide-ranging statute that required police to make immigration checks in certain cases and inspired similar laws in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah.

Several weeks after the smuggling law took effect in August 2005, Maricopa County’s then-top prosecutor issued a legal opinion that said immigrants suspected of using smugglers to enter the country illegally can be charged as conspirators. Maricopa County is the only county in the state to use the conspirator interpretation for the smuggling law.

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