DOJ Sues Controversial Ariz. Sheriff Over Civil Rights

The Justice Department is suing Arizona's most controversial sheriff on civil rights violations. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is being charged with racial profiling of motorists, mistreatment of inmates and retaliation against his critics.

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The man who calls himself America's toughest sheriff has a new fight on his hands, this time with the U.S. government. The Justice Department today sued Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, alleging discrimination against Latinos and retaliation against his critics. Civil rights leaders say the sheriff broke the law in an effort to chase illegal immigrants out of the community.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has our story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For months, the Justice Department and Sheriff Joe Arpaio have been playing a game of chicken, driving toward each other with the gas pedal to the floor, daring each other to swerve away. Today, that game ended with these words from Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez.

TOM PEREZ: At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff and a sheriff's office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, compromised public safety and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics.

JOHNSON: For only the second time, the U.S. Justice Department used its power under civil rights laws to sue a police agency over a pattern of discrimination. The lawsuit outlines three kinds of alleged misconduct. First, stopping Latino drivers without cause. Second, failing to provide language help for jail inmates who don't speak English. And, third, arresting and suing judges, lawyers and other people in the community who criticize Sheriff Arpaio and his anti-immigration stance.

Again, Tom Perez.

PEREZ: The police are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not divide them.

JOHNSON: A few hours later in Phoenix, Sheriff Arpaio delivered his own message. He told Fox News he won't back down.

SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: I'm not going to give it up. I'm going to continue to enforce state laws and federal laws. And I look forward to court because then we can put our case out and they're going to have to put up and stop these press conferences to embarrass me, especially in a election year.

JOHNSON: But news of the federal case got a warmer reception from Latino advocates. Clarissa Martinez is a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza. She says her group's been calling for Arpaio's resignation, but as the five-term office holder seems unlikely to leave, she says federal scrutiny...

CLARISSA MARTINEZ: Is needed to ensure that if you live in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jurisdiction, whether you are served and protected doesn't depend on the color of your skin.

JOHNSON: Martinez says she's been hearing complaints about the sheriff for years.

MARTINEZ: This kind of behavior has intensified, particularly in light of the toxic nature of the immigration debate and the openings for some members of law enforcement to start looking at the enforcement of immigration laws.

JOHNSON: That's important because several states, including Arizona, want to take immigration matters into their own hands. The Supreme Court is deliberating on that very issue in a separate case that pits Arizona leaders against the Justice Department.

In the policing case, the federal government says it tried to negotiate with Arpaio for months but talks broke down when Justice insisted on an independent monitor to oversee Arpaio's department.

PEREZ: How long it takes to resolve this case is a very good question and the answer to that question is entirely in the hands of Sheriff Arpaio.

JOHNSON: Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union says it plans to meet the sheriff in court, too, for a racial profiling lawsuit it filed on behalf of Latino drivers that's set to go to trial in July.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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