The US Justice Department (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Thursday for alleged civil rights violations and refusal to cooperate with a federal probe.
Arpaio, who leads the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” has drawn both criticism and support as one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of illegal immigration. Arpaio is also an active participant in 287(g) – a program funded by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that trains and authorizes state police departments in enforcing federal immigration laws. The MCSO has deported more than 26,000 immigrants in the past three years, one-quarter of the national total of 115,841.
Since March 2009, the DOJ has attempted to investigate Arpaio for a litany of alleged civil rights abuses, including racial profiling, unconstitutional searches and seizures and enforcement of English-only policies in his jails, but Arpaio’s office has refused to produce all the requested documents. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits federally funded programs such as 287(g) from discriminating on the basis of race, color and national origin, and grant recipients are required to provide the DOJ full access to documents, facilities and staff during investigations. To receive federal funds for its participation in 278(g), the MCSO signed contractual agreements that assured its compliance with Title VI and promised its full cooperation with discrimination probes.
This DOJ investigation is not the first time Arpaio has faced federal charges for civil rights abuses. A separate probe launched this year by a grand jury is looking into abuse of power charges against Arpaio after he conducted baseless prosecutions of political opponents. In 1997, the DOJ also investigated Arpaio for civil rights abuses within his jails, alleging that he deliberately failed to discipline guards who subjected inmates to excessive use of force. Arpaio’s compliance in that case led to the implementation of more humane jail policies, including the limited use of pepper spray, stun guns and restraint chairs.
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Thursday’s lawsuit marks the first time in more than 30 years that the DOJ has had to sue a police force for compliance. Arpaio refused to comply with an August 17 and a September 10 deadline to produce documents requested over 15 months ago.
“The actions of the sheriff’s office are unprecedented,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities.”
Arpaio’s attorney Robert Driscoll wrote in a letter to Judy Preston, acting chief for the Special Litigation Section, that the MCSO “certainly did not agree that every document DOJ requested is required to be produced in a Title VI investigation … If DOJ seeks to dictate every deadline and maintain the position that it, in its sole discretion, can determine what it wants and when, without any reasonable limitations on scope and without any input from MCSO, what DOJ truly seeks is compelled or coerced compliance. MCSO is committed to providing DOJ with a reasonable amount of information and documents based upon which DOJ can investigate allegations of national origin discrimination.”
The MCSO and Arpaio’s alleged crimes violate not only Title VI, but also the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. According to the lawsuit, if the MCSO is found guilty of discriminatory behavior, Maricopa County stands to lose an estimated $113 million in federal grants. The funds also go toward programs such as assistance for low-income families and health care for the homeless.
During a press conference Thursday morning, Arpaio expressed disappointment in the ongoing investigation. “I thought we were really close to getting this resolved,” Arpaio said. He also promised to proceed with his current operation of 278(g), stating, “I’m going to continue, maybe tomorrow, to enforce all the illegal immigration laws … As [State Senator Russell Pearce] always says, ‘Take the handcuffs off the cops.’ I’m not going to be intimidated by the federal government going to court against us.”
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