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U.S. Department of Justice sues Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio

On May 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued both the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, in the federal District Court for the District of Arizona.  Coming on the heels of DOJ’s scathing report of MCSO’s discriminatory policing of Latinos and other civil rights violations, this civil suit alleges that MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio engaged in three categories of unlawful conduct:

  • discriminatory law enforcement actions against Latinos
  • discriminatory jail practices against Latino prisoners with limited English skills
  • retaliatory actions against perceived critics of MSCO activities.

Specifically, DOJ alleges that, at least since 2006, MCSO targeted Latinos for enforcement (at traffic stops, in the workplace, through home raids and through so-called human trafficking “suppression sweeps”) because of their race, color, or national origin.  Additionally, MCSO intentionally failed for years to provide Spanish language assistance services to prisoners.  Finally, MCSO repeatedly arrested without cause and filed unsubstantiated lawsuits against critics of its enforcement activities.

DOJ argues that MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio violated the First Amendment (freedom of speech), Fourth Amendment (freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures), and the Fourteenth Amendment (right of due process), as well as two federal anti-discrimination statutes.  Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 prohibits law enforcement agencies (like MCSO) from engaging in a “pattern or practice” of violating the Constitution or laws of the United States.  Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its regulations provide that recipients of federal financial assistance (like MCSO) may not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. 

DOJ emphasized that MCSO’s conduct is “the product of a culture of disregard in MCSO for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization.”  (Complaint, ¶ 4)  [emphasis added]  DOJ then went on to list many of the derogatory names and phrases used by MCSO employees to refer to Latinos.

In 2007, MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio entered into what is called a “287(g)” agreement with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  This agreement originally granted Maricopa County police the authority to question people about their immigration status and to place “ICE holds” or federal immigration detainers on individuals both in the field (that is, stopping people on the street to investigate their status) and in the jails.  Through the 287(g) agreement, MCSO was given federal funding and training for these federal immigration enforcement responsibilities.

Based on widespread complaints about how MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio were using this authority to terrorize the Latino population, however, in 2009, DHS refused to renew half of MCSO’s 287(g) authority (enforcement in the field) and only granted enforcement powers in jails (that is, MCSO officers could only investigate immigration status or place detainers once an individual has already been booked into jail on a non-immigration related charge).  But MCSO and Sheriff Arpaio continued their discriminatory policing, and in December 2011, DHS revoked their remaining 287(g) authority.