Justice Department Sues Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Civil Rights Case

"Toughest Sheriff in America" faces charges of discrimination, excessive force.

May 10, 2012, 2:30 PM

May 10, 2012 — -- The Justice Department has filed suit against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, alleging the police force discriminates against Latinos, uses excessive force, runs its jail unconstitutionally and has taken illegal action to silence critics.

The civil lawsuit is an ongoing effort by the Justice Department to install an independent monitor to reform the police department. Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "Toughest Sheriff in America," will now have the fate of his office determined by a federal Judge.

Last month the Justice Department broke off negotiations with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office as talks broke down over having a monitor implement reforms.

"I will not surrender my office to the federal government," Arpaio said then.

The civil lawsuit filed at the U.S. District Court in Phoenix alleges the sherriff's office has violated the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution, which protect free speech, unlawful searches and due process rights respectively.

"The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) and Sheriff Joseph M. Arpaio have engaged and continue to engage in a pattern or practice of unlawful discriminatory police conduct directed at Latinos in Maricopa County and jail practices that unlawfully discriminate against Latino prisoners with limited English language skills," the lawsuit alleges. "Latinos in Maricopa County are frequently stopped, detained, and arrested on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and Latino prisoners with limited English language skills are denied important constitutional protections. In addition, Defendants MCSO and Arpaio pursue a pattern or practice of illegal retaliation against their perceived critics by subjecting them to baseless criminal actions, unfounded civil lawsuits, or meritless administrative actions."

Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, told reporters today, "The police are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not divide them. 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, comprised public safety, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics."

In Arpaio's case, Perez said, "The traffic operations have very low 'hit rates,' and very high rates of stopping Latino U.S. citizens and legal residents, the specialized [police] units receive little oversight and inadequate training. If you looked Latino, you were all too frequently fair game for MCSO officers."

The lawsuit notes that Sheriff employees frequently use racial slurs and that supervisors have freely expressed anti-Latino bias in emails.

"MCSO and Arpaio's words and actions set the tone and create a culture of bias that contributes to unlawful actions," the lawsuit alleges. "The Defendants' violations of the Constitution and laws of the United States are the product of a culture of disregard in MCSO for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization."

The Sheriff's office did not respond to an e-mail inquiry from ABC News asking about the filing of the lawsuit.

Aside from demonstrating examples of unconstitutional policing the lawsuit also alleges that Arpaio and Sheriff's employees tried to silence critics who spoke out against their actions.

"Since at least 2006 and continuing to the present, in violation of the First Amendment, MCSO and Arpaio have retaliated against critics of MCSO practices, and particularly MCSO's immigration practices, in an effort to punish these persons for their criticism and to prevent future criticism." The lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit notes that Sheriff employees filed complaints against county Judges with the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct and filed complaints with the Arizona state Bar targeting attorneys who publically complained about the Sheriff's office.

In December, the Justice Department released investigative findings of Arpaio's office, revealing significant civil rights violations, including the use of excessive force, and other systemic problems which lead the way to negotiations and the lawsuit.

The Justice Department's investigation into the sheriff's office began during the Bush administration in June 2008. There is also an ongoing criminal investigation into officials at the sheriff's office.

While no monetary damages are being sought by the Justice Department, the sheriff's office does receive federal funds which could be reduced as part of the investigation.

The Justice Department has only filed one other lawsuit against a local police department in the past 18 years since DOJ has been working on police reforms, that case against the Columbus, Ohio police department resulted in a settlement.

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