By The Associated Press

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's anti-illegal immigration patrols 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 Latinos. "It's our view that the problem starts at the top," attorney Stan Young said.

Tim Casey, who is defending Arpaio, said 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." The plaintiffs aren't 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 will serve as a precursor to a U.S. Justice Department's 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.

Arpaio was not expected in court Thursday.

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 Latinos who were in vehicles, had no probable cause to pull them over and made the stops so they could inquire about their immigration status.

If Arpaio loses the civil case, he won't face jail time or fines.

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.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow has issued rulings against Arpaio earlier in the case.

In December, he barred Arpaio's deputies who are enforcing Arizona's 2005 immigrant smuggling law from detaining people based solely on the suspicion that they're in the country illegally. Arpaio has appealed that decision.

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

Separate from the two lawsuits that allege racial profiling, a federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.