May 10 (Bloomberg) -- Arizona’s Maricopa County and its sheriff, Joseph Arpaio, were sued by the U.S. Justice Department for discrimination against Latinos, prompting the sheriff to retort he’s the subject of an Obama administration election-year maneuver.
The lawsuit, filed today in federal court in Phoenix, accuses the sheriff’s department of denying constitutional protections to Latino prisoners who have limited English language skills. The complaint also alleges the sheriff’s department has retaliated against perceived critics with “baseless criminal actions, unfounded civil lawsuits or meritless administrative actions.”
The alleged discrimination “is the product of a culture of disregard for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
Sheriff’s office jail employees frequently refer to Latinos as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” and “stupid Mexicans,” according to the complaint. Supervisors in immigration enforcement show anti-Latino bias, including sending around an e-mail of a Chihuahua dressed in swimming gear with a caption that read, “a rare photo of a Mexican Navy Seal,” according to the complaint.
Arapaio, who has been elected five times and served 20 years in office, said President Barack Obama is going after him to court Latino voters.
“They know this is political and they know this has to do with the president of the United States,” he said today at a news conference in Phoenix.
Arpaio called the timing of the case “highly suspect” in light of the coming presidential election, in which the Latino vote may play a critical role, and the Supreme Court’s consideration of Arizona’s immigration law, which was argued on April 25.
“It is a national issue,” he said. “I am the poster boy. They are using me.”
Justice Department representatives didn’t immediately return a call after regular business hours for comment on the sheriff’s allegations.
The Justice Department said in December that the sheriff’s office discriminated against Latinos with unlawful stops, arrests and biased jail practices. An inquiry revealed “serious concerns” that Arpaio didn’t investigate crimes adequately or provide police protection to the Latino community, Justice Department officials said.
Joe Popolizio, a lawyer for the sheriff’s office, said at a news conference in Phoenix that the Justice Department has refused to provide information to support its findings.
“We have repeatedly asked for the factual basis of those findings,” he said.
Popolizio said a lawsuit will require the Justice Department to share those records and name witnesses. The federal government’s requirement for a monitor to oversee the sheriff’s department would be “usurping the power of the sheriff,” Popolizio said.
The Justice Department sent letters to Arpaio and his department yesterday warning them to expect a lawsuit after they refused to negotiate a consent agreement. The lawsuit seeks court-ordered relief ensuring that Arpaio and his department implement policies and procedures to prevent the conduct alleged in the complaint.
“Though we provided the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office with a draft agreement and were prepared to negotiate it, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office made the decision to cancel negotiations,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in the letters to Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney William Montgomery in Phoenix.
The negotiations failed because the sheriff’s department wouldn’t agree to an independent monitor, Perez said today in a conference call with reporters.
Arpaio’s department covers the state’s biggest county by population, with 3.8 million residents. His methods -- which have included “crime suppression” sweeps in predominantly Latino areas in and around Phoenix -- have made him a hero to groups seeking a crackdown on illegal entrants to the U.S. and a target of advocates for immigrants’ rights.
Arapaio accused the Justice Department of working with Latino activists who want him out of office. He said he believes the investigation that led to the lawsuit began under Obama, not under President George W. Bush, as he said the Justice Department contends.
Civil Rights Case
This is the second time the Justice Department has sued a police department in this type of civil rights case, Perez said. The earlier case involved the police department in Columbus, Ohio, which ultimately settled the case, he said.
“At its core, this is an abuse-of-power case involving a sheriff and sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, compromised public safety, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics,” Perez said.
The Justice Department said in its complaint that in 2006, Arpaio decided to turn the sheriff’s office into “a full-fledged anti-illegal immigration agency.”
Latino drivers and passengers are unlawfully detained to determine their immigration status when there is no legal basis to hold them, the Justice Department said. In some parts of the county, Latino drivers are almost nine times more likely to be stopped by sheriff officers than non-Latino drivers engaged in similar conduct, according to the complaint.
John Masterson, a lawyer for the sheriff’s office, said at today’s news conference that the facts weren’t there to support the Justice Department’s allegations.
“We will defend this litigation aggressively and we will seek the information from DOJ that they have refused to provide,” Masterson said. “They don’t have anything that supports systematic constitutional violations.”
The case is U.S. v. Maricopa County, 12-00981, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).