- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Justice Department, which first targeted Sheriff Joe Arpaio four years ago over his handling of illegal immigrants arrested in the Phoenix area, filed a civil lawsuit in federal court Thursday accusing the sheriff and his office of “unconstitutional and unlawful actions” against Hispanics.

The complaint, which says the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Sheriff Arpaio abuse Hispanic inmates and engage in ethnic profiling, produced a flurry of charges and countercharges Thursday, in which the sheriff accused federal bureaucrats of trying to usurp his power as an elected official and the top Democrat in Congress applauded the lawsuit.

The lawsuit against America’s self-described “toughest sheriff” comes in the wake of a breakdown of negotiations between the department and the sheriff's office over the appointment of a court monitor, who would have overseen the office’s handling of those it arrests and detains, and direct operations regarding its enforcement programs and actions.

A “notice of intent to file civil action” came Wednesday from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez in a letter. It is only the second time in the past 18 years that the department has resorted to a lawsuit after a settlement effort failed.

“I would rather fix the problem than debate the existence of a problem,” Mr. Perez said during a Phoenix news conference.

Sheriff Arpaio said a series of meetings between representatives of his office and the Justice Department were scheduled to continue this week to discuss ways to resolve accusations of racial profiling by his office.

But, the sheriff said, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, a top litigator in the department’s Civil Rights Division, instead issued an ultimatum: It was absolutely mandatory for the sheriff's office to agree to an outside monitor; otherwise, there was no reason for further meetings.

The sheriff told The Washington Times in an interview that the appointment of an outside monitor “essentially usurps the powers and duties of an elected sheriff” and transfers them to the federal government.

“Every policy decision, every operation, every new program in the jails and in enforcement, virtually everything would have to be approved by the monitor, nullifying the authority of the elected sheriff and eviscerating the will of the citizens of Maricopa County,” he said.

“I am the constitutionally and legitimately elected sheriff, and I absolutely refuse to surrender my responsibility to the federal government,” he said. “And so to the Obama administration, who is attempting to strong-arm me into submission only for its political gain, I say, ‘This will not happen, not on my watch.’”

Later Thursday, he held an emotional press conference in Phoenix, where he continued his visibly angry denunciations of the Obama administration’s Justice Department.

“I am not going to surrender my office to the federal government,” he said. “I will fight this to the bitter end.”

The sheriff’s attorney, Jack MacIntyre, called the appointment of a federal monitor the “most extreme proposal,” particularly since the federal government has refused to provide any details or proof as to how it came to the conclusion that sheriff’s office employees engage in patterns and practices of racial profiling.

“We have never agreed to a monitor replacing the duly elected sheriff,” he said. “We have always been open to negotiating these issues raised by the DOJ, but never the appointment of a monitor.”

The Justice Department has maintained that the sheriff's office “negotiated in bad faith” and, as a result, put the settlement talks in jeopardy. Mr. Austin told Mr. MacIntyre in a letter Tuesday that the sheriff’s precondition of not having a court-appointed monitor to help enforce an agreement to settle the civil rights accusations would result in the cancellation of negotiations.

“We believe you are wasting time and not negotiating in good faith,” wrote Mr. Austin, questioning whether the sheriff's office was ever interested in settling the matter. “Your tactics have required DOJ to squander valuable time and resources.”

The lawsuit charges the Phoenix-area department with:

• Discriminatory and otherwise unconstitutional law enforcement actions against Hispanics who are frequently stopped, detained and arrested on the basis of race, color or national origin.

• Discriminatory jail practices against Hispanic inmates with limited English skills.

• Illegal retaliation against their perceived critics, subjecting them to baseless criminal actions, unfounded civil lawsuits or meritless administrative actions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, commended the Obama administration for its decision to file a lawsuit against Sheriff Arpaio, saying the sheriff has been “operating outside of our nation’s laws.” He said police are supposed to “protect and serve our communities, not divide them or judge them.”

“No one should face discrimination based on the color of their skin, their accent or any other similar characteristics,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the Justice Department lawsuit took “an important step toward ending the rampant racial profiling and illegal stops by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.”

Cecillia Wang, the ACLU’s director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the lawsuit added momentum to a pending ACLU lawsuit against Sheriff Arpaio scheduled for trial in July. That suit says the sheriff's office “systematically violated the rights of Latino residents of Maricopa County in the name of immigration enforcement.”

According to the Justice Department complaint, since 2006, the sheriff's office and Sheriff Arpaio have intentionally and systematically discriminated against Hispanics by stopping them in their vehicles four to nine times more often than similarly situated non-Hispanic drivers.

In addition, it said, the sheriff's office stops Hispanics without the required legal justification; detains and searches them on roads, in their homes and in their workplaces without legal justification; mistreats Hispanic detainees with limited English skills; and punishes detainees if they fail to understand orders given in English.

It said the sheriff's office also files baseless administrative cases, civil actions and criminal cases against its perceived critics in “an attempt to chill free speech.”

The sheriff's office “promotes and is indifferent to the discriminatory conduct of its law enforcement officers, as is demonstrated by inadequate policies, ineffective training, virtually nonexistent accountability measures, poor supervision, scant data-collection mechanisms, distorted enforcement prioritization [and] an ineffective complaint and disciplinary system,” the complaint said.

Additionally, the complaint alleges that the conduct is the product of “a culture of disregard for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization.” It said sheriff’s office employees frequently use derogatory terms to refer to Hispanics, and Sheriff Arpaio and his supervisors, “through their words and actions, set the tone and create a culture of bias that contributes to unlawful actions.”

In the complaint, the Justice Department seeks declaratory and injunctive relief that would ensure that the sheriff's office implements policies and procedures to prevent the pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct identified in it.

“No one in Maricopa County is above the law, and the department will fight to ensure that the promise of the Constitution is realized by everyone in Maricopa County,” Mr. Perez said.

When the Justice Department first issued a scathing report in December accusing the sheriff's office of discriminatory conduct, an unusually animated Sheriff Arpaio denounced the Obama administration as putting a greater priority on going after law enforcement than securing the border with Mexico.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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