Controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio Under Investigation for Allegedly Violating Civil Rights

Justice Dept. says that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is stonewalling the investigation.

September 3, 2010, 5:54 PM

WASHINGTON Sept. 3, 2010— -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona has gained national attention for his relentless pursuit of illegal immigrants, but now the hard-line lawman finds himself in the sights of the U.S. Justice Department.

The self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in the country is under investigation for possibly breaking civil rights laws.

Watch "World News with Diane Sawyer" for more on this story tonight on ABC.

Among the federal allegations against Arpaio: "unlawful searches and seizures, discriminatory police conduct, and a failure to provide basic services to individuals with limited English."

In short, the Justice Department charges that the sheriff unfairly targets Latinos.

Arpaio has reacted with outright defiance.

"This is the people of Arizona they are going against, using me as a puppet," Arpaio said at a press conference on Thursday. "They're not going to put handcuffs on this sheriff. I'm not going to surrender!"

This week, the Justice Department took the sheriff to court, filing a lawsuit that accuses Arpaio of obstructing the department's civil rights investigation.

That only added to Arpaio's anger today.

"The federal government should be thanking me!" Arpaio told ABC News. "Thanking me for all of the hard work that we are doing assisting them."

Arpaio has long been controversial for his aggressive enforcement practices, training deputies to use minor traffic violations as an occasion to check individuals' legal status. At Arpaio's county jail, prisoners were forced to wear black-and-white striped uniforms, with pink socks and underwear.

When protesters marched earlier this summer against Arizona's controversial illegal immigration bill, they also targeted Arpaio, chanting, "Sheriff Joe, we are here. We will not live in fear."

Arpaio: "We Do Not Discriminate"

Today, Arpaio denied the charge that he's stonewalling the investigation, saying that his office turned over "thousands and thousands" of documents, and he rebuffed the suggestion that his department discriminates against Latinos.

"We do not discriminate," he said. "We do not do racial profiling... So they [Dept. of Justice] continue to do their fishing expedition, but this is just a ruse to go after me."

Arpaio, who has been elected to office five times, isn't likely to change his ways. He's not up for re-election until 2012, but he's already raised roughly $2 million, evidence of his popularity with local voters.

If the Sheriff's Office is deemed to have engaged in discriminatory behavior it could risk losing federal grants, estimated at $16.5 million, according to the lawsuit.

Being tough on illegal immigration has been good politics for the sheriff. Now, the question is whether the Justice Department's lawsuit will help Arpaio politically or cost his county millions in the long run.

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