Department Of Justice Sues Joe Arpaio, Alleging Civil Rights Violations

The Department of Justice has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio claiming that his Department has been systematically violating the rights of Hispanic inmates and suspects:

PHOENIX — The Justice Department on Thursday sued Joe Arpaio, a prominent Arizona sheriff known for his crackdowns aimed at rounding up illegal 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 illegal 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.

Arpaio has always struck me as mostly a posturing blowhard who has pandered to resident’s fears about immigrants quite well in order to boost his political career. If he is indeed violating the rights of Latino’s as the lawsuit suggests, then he needs to be brought under control and if the voters won’t do it, then the Courts must. As the article notes, though, I suspect that this is a case that is going to end up going all the way to trial largely because Arpaio does not strike as a person who would admit wrongdoing even when settling the case would quite obviously be in his interests.

So, stay tuned.

Here’s the complaint:

United States v. Joseph Arpaio et al

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. sam says:

    “Arpaio has always struck me as mostly a posturing blowhard who has pandered to resident’s fears about immigrants quite well in order to boost his political career”

    He may be a good deal worse than that.

    Thomas, Aubuchon to be stripped of legal licenses

    The decision to disbar former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and one of his former lieutenants raises new questions about whether the public will fund their anticipated appeals and how the disciplinary panel’s findings may play into federal abuse-of-power investigations of Thomas and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office.

    In an hourlong hearing Tuesday, a disciplinary panel convened by the Arizona Supreme Court repeatedly found clear and convincing evidence of ethical misconduct — even criminal acts — that it said merited disbarment for Thomas and former Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon and suspension for six months and a day of former Deputy County Attorney Rachel Alexander.

    The case has drawn national attention for its rarity: An elected prosecutor’s on-the-job activities being put under harsh scrutiny. Later Tuesday, legal experts held the case up as a model for how to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct.

    “This case is one of those few cases where the disciplinary mechanism worked — and worked in a dramatic and powerful way,” said Bennett Gershman, a Pace University law professor and an expert on prosecutorial misconduct. “This is a huge victory for good-government people and people who believe that prosecutors should be accountable for misconduct.”

    The sanctions are to take effect May 10, but at least two of the three prosecutors are likely to appeal, according to their lawyers, and they can ask for the sanctions to be stayed until their appeals are heard. Disbarment would strip them of their ability to practice law in Arizona and could hinder their ability to practice in other states.

    Only Thomas would not indicate Tuesday whether he would appeal, but he called his disbarment “a political witch hunt.” He is expected to hold a news conference today to discuss his case.

    While the sanctions may be appealed to the state Supreme Court, it is at the court’s discretion whether to consider the appeals. The court can uphold the disciplinary ruling without comment, remand the case to the disciplinary judge for further consideration or accept jurisdiction and write an opinion with or without holding further hearings.

    Aubuchon’s attorneys have so far handled her case for free, but Maricopa County administrators must now decide whether to continue to pay the legal bills for Thomas and Alexander.

    “We’ve given this guy far more than we’ve received from him in terms of benefit of the doubt,” said county Supervisor Andy Kunasek. “I cannot in good conscience spend any more taxpayer money when they found beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s abused his office and abused his obligations as a lawyer.”

    The actions of Thomas and Arpaio against the Board of Supervisors, judges and others have cost county taxpayers at least $10.6 million, mostly in legal bills, according to a Republic analysis. A legal settlement reportedly imminent with Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who was targeted by some of their activities, could raise that figure by $1 million, The Republic has learned.

    The disciplinary panel ruled that harsh punishment was fitting because the former prosecutors together pressed unwarranted criminal charges, obtained indictments, filed a federal racketeering lawsuit and initiated investigations against Thomas and Arpaio’s political enemies from 2006 to 2010, when Thomas resigned as county attorney to run for state attorney general.

    Presiding Disciplinary Judge William O’Neil referred to the public expense of their activities, noting in a 247-page order: “Respondents Thomas and Aubuchon joined hands to inflict an economic blizzard on (the) public and multiple individuals which is paled only by the intentional infliction of emotional devastation their icy calculated storm left in its wake. That harm is irrefutable, yet still finds Respondents without a shred of remorse.”

    O’Neil referred to the prosecutors as incompetent, blinded by a misguided belief that they were rooting out government corruption when they were instead persecuting political rivals without probable cause.

    Though the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Tuesday declined comment on the panel’s order, it may have implications for a long-running federal investigation into whether Thomas, Arpaio and their deputies abused their power.

    The order clearly states that Thomas, Aubuchon and Alexander conspired with Arpaio and former sheriff’s Chief Deputy David Hendershott to retaliate against judges, the Board of Supervisors and other county officials and that they conspired to file criminal charges against then-sitting Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe without probable cause.

    The order states that the charges were filed to keep Donahoe from holding a court hearing that might have been unfavorable to Thomas.

  2. legion says:

    Indeed, just the idea that a County Sheriff would establish a “task force” to investigate the legitimacy of the President’s birth certificate without being thrown out for misappropriation of funds just underlines the fact that the state of Arizona simply can’t be trusted to manage itself – hence the federal intervention.

  3. walt moffett says:

    About time.

  4. @legion: Sad, but true. We will look back on these racist kooks thirty years from now and laugh our asses off, but for the time being, the fact remains that they are committing horrific acts against people mostly based around little more than their race, and they have stoked the fears of simple people enough to have this be allowed via the vote. Sometimes, the vote must be thrown out by responsible adults.