N.C. Sheriff Terry Johnson On Trial For Racial Profiling

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Justice Department officials say Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson illegally targeted Latino drivers and detained people without probable cause. Johnson's attorneys say the charges are baseless.


A local sheriff in North Carolina is on trial over racial profiling. The Federal Justice Department says Sheriff Terry Johnson violated the constitutional rights of Hispanic citizens and legal residents. He's accused of detaining and arresting people without probable cause, including at traffic stops. Johnson's attorney say these charges are baseless. North Carolina Public Radio's Jessica Jones reports.

JESSICA JONES, BYLINE: Sheriff Johnson's trial is being held in a courtroom in a federal building in the middle of Winston-Salem. TV trucks idle outside on the curb. During a lunch break, Yajaira Cuevas is sitting on a bench across the street unwrapping a boxed salad.

YAJAIRA CUEVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

JONES: Cuevas says she's attending the trial because she feared the traffic stops that Johnson's department set up in Alamance County where she lives. She knows people who were picked up for minor offenses and sent back to Mexico.

Until 2012, the sheriff's department participated in a federal program called 287g that allowed local deputies to begin deportation proceedings. Latino advocate Blanca Nienhaus, who's sitting nearby, thinks Johnson did unfairly target the community. She's glad the Department of Justice is prosecuting him.

BLANCA NIENHAUS: His trial is the culmination of many years of effort, and to me, personally, being from Mexico, it's encouraging to witness that probably justice is for all. And not just for a segment of the population.

JONES: Nienhaus was among those who urged federal officials to investigate the sheriff's department. She adds that advocates in other states have been concerned about similar situations in their own backyards.

GRACE MENG: What's happening in Alamance County is not a fluke.

JONES: Grace Meng is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

MENG: It's very easy for a law enforcement agency that wants to engage in racial profiling to do so in collaboration with a federal immigration enforcement program.

JONES: Meng says program like 287g and a newer one called Secure Communities have encouraged some police and sheriff's deputies across the country to target immigrants. She says that includes Arizona, where last year, a federal judge found Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio guilty of racial profiling in a civil trial. But Sheriff Terry Johnson’s supporters say he runs a clean department. Sammy Moser is one of them.

SAMMY MOSER: I mean, it appeared to me that Sheriff Johnson and our deputies did a good job when they decided they would accept that challenge and met the requirements to be a part of the 287g program.

JONES: Moser says, as he understood it, the purpose of the federal program was to send illegal immigrants home, which Johnson helped do. Back in 2007, Johnson told NPR that he was doing what the government wanted.


TERRY JOHNSON: What we're going to become here and what we're been asked to do is to be like a deportation hub. They're deported in courts in Charlotte. They bring them here - boom. Next day, they get onto the JPAC plane to take them back to their country.

JONES: Johnson hoped the arrangement would help fill his new jail and give him more federal money the more inmates he housed. Some residents say Johnson's zeal makes him the best sheriff they've ever had. County Commissioner Linda Massey says the area's growing Latino population requires strong law enforcement.

LINDA MASSEY: They do drink a lot. I mean, not all of them, I'm sure. But I do know I've been by a lot of the nightlife places. They're all standing out in the front yard. And you know, you need to stay inside instead of being out there making loud noises.

JONES: Massey believes the sheriff is just trying to keep order in a county where the Hispanic population is booming. She says she thinks he's doing a good job. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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