Police in legal minefield on Ariz. immigration law

A protester opposed to Arizona's Immigration Law SB 1070 argues with a police officer April 25, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona. Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images

(AP) PHOENIX - More than two years after it was signed into law, the most contentious part of Arizona's landmark immigration legislation is expected to go into effect following a federal court ruling issue late Wednesday.

But the U.S. Supreme Court laid a legal minefield that Arizona now must navigate when the critical provision takes effect. The clause, one of the few significant ones that the high court left standing in a June ruling, requires all Arizona police officers to check the immigration status of people they stop while enforcing other laws and suspect are in the country illegally.

While preserving that requirement, however, the Supreme Court explicitly left the door open to arguments that the law leads to civil rights violations. Attorneys would need actual victims to make that case.

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Civil rights activists are preparing to scour the state for such victims. Lydia Guzman, who runs Respect/Respeto, a Phoenix group that tracks racial profiling, said volunteers at the organization's call center have already been told to listen for new complaints when the requirement goes into effect.

"We're watching and we're looking for cases," she said.

Barring a successful, emergency challenge of Wednesday's ruling to an appeals court — an outcome that legal observers believe is unlikely — the requirement is expected to go into effect in the next several days. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton rejected arguments by civil rights attorneys that she should prevent the requirement from kicking in, noting that the Supreme Court had specifically found that the provision should be allowed to become law.

Arizona police were formally trained on how to implement the law shortly after Gov. Jan Brewer signed it in 2010. The heads of some of the state's biggest law enforcement agencies — the Phoenix and Tucson police departments and the Pima County sheriff's office — were critical of it but ultimately said they would obey whatever parts the courts found to be constitutional.

"We enforce laws passed by our legislators," Sgt. Tommy Thompson, a Phoenix Police spokesman, said Wednesday night, noting the requirement still has not gone into effect.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been the most publicly aggressive in pursuing illegal immigrants, said in an interview Wednesday that his deputies already check the immigration status of people they encounter. Arpaio, a supporter of the law, said he expects no differences other than an increased number of lawsuits.

The law's author, former state Sen. Russell Pearce, said he does not expect sweeping changes in the way local police will conduct themselves once the requirement kicks in.

"I'm not asking for roundups, I'm not asking for anything but paying attention and doing your job," he said. "It's not that we want people in jail. We want compliance."

Peter Spiro, a Temple University law professor who has followed the two-year legal battle, said Arizona remains in a difficult legal spot.

"If the state's savvy at all, it's going to be very cautious" about how it implements the requirement, he said. "To the extent that it's not, it's going to be very vulnerable on this.

"Further litigation," Spiro said, "is imminent."

Since it overwhelmingly passed Arizona's Republican-controlled Legislature in 2010, the immigration law has been fiercely challenged in court.

Among its opponents was the Obama administration, which challenged the law based on the argument that federal immigration law trumped Arizona law. The challenge didn't confront racial profiling, and the administration failed to persuade the nation's highest court to strike down the questioning requirement.

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