Justice Department sues Arizona sheriff
PHOENIX & SANTA FE, NM (By Fernanda Santos and Charlie Savage, NYT) May 10, 2012 ― The Justice Department on Thursday sued Joe Arpaio, a prominent Arizona sheriff known for his crackdowns aimed at rounding up undocumented immigrants , accusing him of discrimination and retaliating against his critics. The move, in an election year, escalated a politically charged fight over local enforcement of federal immigration laws and the civil rights of Latinos.
In a 32-page civil rights lawsuit against Mr. Arpaio and his Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, the Justice Department contended that Mr. Arpaio’s campaign against illegal immigration — including traffic stops and sweeps of homes and workplaces — had resulted in a “pattern or practice of unlawful discrimination” aimed at Latinos.
Mr. Arpaio’s focus on immigration enforcement has eroded the relationship between law enforcement and the Latino community here, with Latinos growing increasingly wary of cooperating with the authorities when they are victims or witnesses of crimes. The lawsuit also argues that the resources devoted to the sweeps have required the sheriff’s office to put a lower priority on traditional local law enforcement responsibilities, like investigating rapes and domestic violence.
"The United States is not seeking, and has never sought, monetary damages or attorney's fees in connection with our case," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a news conference here. The goal, Mr. Perez said, is "to fix the problems" and to "ensure that the necessary policies, practices and oversight are in place" to prevent them from happening again.
The conduct of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Mr. Arpaio “is neither constitutional nor effective law enforcement,” the Justice Department argued in court papers. “The defendants’ violations of the Constitution and laws of the United States are the product of a culture of disregard for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization.”
Mr. Arpaio has waged an increasingly bitter dispute with the Obama administration, including questioning the president’s birth certificate and portraying the civil rights investigation as politicized. In a pre-emptive strike, Mr. Arpaio’s office released on Wednesday a 17-page plan that promises to “establish and maintain specific bias-free law enforcement and detention” through better training and comprehensive policies.
Portraying his agency as poorly trained and supervised, the lawsuit contends that its roughly 900 deputies are far more likely to stop and search Latinos than others – a sort of “detain first, ask questions later” approach that has led to roundups of people whose names are not listed in warrants. It cites many examples, including a woman of Hispanic descent who was held in custody for four hours before she was able to prove she had been born in the United States.
Meanwhile, the roughly 1,800 officers in the county jail system have a “culture of bias” against Latinos, whom they frequently refer to as “wetbacks” and “stupid Mexicans,” the complaint said. It said it was routine for department employees to circulate e-mails displaying bias against Latinos, like a picture of a Chihuahua in swimming gear and captioned “A Rare Photo of a Mexican Navy Seal.”
The federal government and Arizona officials have been feuding on many fronts about immigration enforcement. State officials contend that the federal government has failed to police the southwestern border, leading to a flood of undocumented immigrants who have strained state services and created a host of problems.
The Supreme Court is weighing a federal challenge to a 2010 Arizona law that requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of people they stop and suspect are not in the United States legally.
But even by Arizona’s standards, Mr. Arpaio, a media-savvy figure who is known as “Sheriff Joe,” has been aggressive. The Justice Department’s investigation of his policing practices began during the Bush administration. It eventually stalled, and in 2010 the Obama administration filed a lawsuit to compel the department to cooperate, including interviewing more than 400 people and reviewing thousands of pages of documents.
In December, the Justice Department released a highly critical report laying out the alleged violations by Mr. Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. The department moved to negotiate a settlement, but Mr. Arpaio eventually refused to acquiesce to its demand to place a monitor in his office, saying it would give the federal government too much power over a local law enforcement agency.
In a letter to Mr. Arpaio on Wednesday, Justice Department officials notified him of the impending lawsuit, saying that an agreement "could not be resolved through voluntary means."
While most such cases end in a settlement, the bitter standoff suggests that it may take a trial to resolve the matter, at which the federal government would have to submit evidence to prove its claims of intentional bias against Latinos. The complaint sketched the outlines of such a case, including a study in 2011 that found that Hispanic drivers in Maricopa County were between four and nine times as likely to be stopped as non-Latino drivers who engaged in similar conduct.
The complaint focused in particular on the work of Mr. Arpaio’s human-smuggling unit, whose role is to capture undocumented immigrants as they are brought to the country, as well as the people who bring them in. It criticized a three-page policy guiding the unit as insufficient to prevent discriminatory policing, and said there was no mechanism in place to log complaints of abuse and help identify deputies who might be engaged in a pattern of misconduct.
“There is no legitimate law enforcement purpose that explains these failures” other than to prove that the discrimination against Latinos is “intentional,” it charged.
The lawsuit also charged that the criteria the unit uses to stop, search and arrest people – including detaining Hispanics who do not speak English and are not carrying papers proving their citizenship, and who appear to be nervous or have a strong smell of body odor – fell short of the probable cause required before police may stop and detain people.
For example, on one occasion deputies stopped a car carrying four Latino men, although the car was violating no traffic laws, on the sole grounds that the vehicle “was a little low.” The men were ordered out of the car, zip-tied, and made to sit on a curb for an hour before being released.
The workplace raids are loosely organized and poorly supervised, carried out by officers who generally lack the proper training, the lawsuit said. Neighborhoods, for their part, are picked for raids based on complaints from non-Latinos that a large number of Latinos live there, the lawsuit says.
Non-English speakers who are arrested and held in the county jail face further problems, the complaint said. Jail officials issue instructions only in English, and punish people who do not obey. Prisoners have been denied basic hygienic items – like sanitary napkins for women who are menstruating – if they do not ask for them in English, it said.
The complaint also accused the department and its allies of a pattern of harassing and retaliating against people who criticize Mr. Arpaio’s policies on immigration, including filing complaints against judges and filing lawsuits later found to be baseless, and arresting people without justification.