Justice Dept. Brings New Heat to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Home Turf

The new civil-rights suit against Arizona’s 'Toughest Sheriff in America' came after years of complaints. A talk with DOJ’S Thomas Perez, the son of immigrants who’s on the case.

05.11.12 8:45 AM ET

A few days after the “Toughest Sheriff in America” oversaw his 60th Latino-harassing raid in the Phoenix area, the Obama administration’s top civil-rights lawyer flew to Phoenix and slapped Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office with a monumental civil-rights tort alleging rampant constitutional abuses, including widespread racial profiling of Latinos. The suit also claims the sheriff violated the civil rights of his critics by “illegal retaliation” that included baseless lawsuits and meritless administrative actions.

Now 79, Arpaio claims he’s innocent and dismisses the lawsuit as politicking by the Obama administration in an election year.

“This isn’t about politics,” Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil-rights division of the Department of Justice, told The Daily Beast during an interview at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix. The lawsuit isn’t about money, either, he said. It’s about changing the culture in the sheriff’s office, putting in place “systems that improve the department and make the community safer.”

“This is about public safety,” said Perez. “It’s about the Constitution.”

The most disturbing allegations made by Team Perez center on violence against Latina women.

In one case, the suit says, a five-months’ pregnant American citizen was stopped as she pulled into her driveway. Officers ordered her to sit on the hood of her car. She refused. They slammed her into the car three times—fetus-side first. Next, they placed the woman in a patrol car without air conditioning for half an hour. She was released and cited with failure to provide identification. Later, the charge was changed to “failure to provide proof of insurance.”

In another case, deputies trailed a U.S. citizen to her home, then knocked her to the ground, kneed her in the back and handcuffed her when she tried to run into her house, the suit alleges. They charged her with disturbing the peace. (A judge dismissed the charge.)

In the jails, some Latinos were placed in solitary confinement because they didn’t speak English, the lawsuit says. On some streets, Latinos were nine times more likely to be stopped than non-Latinos. And sheriff’s officials detained dozens of Latinos because “probable cause” included smelling of “strong body odor” or appearing nervous and avoiding eye contact, the lawsuit says.

The Department of Justice first began investigating Arpaio in 2008. In 2010, it sued the sheriff to get documents. In 2011, it accused the sheriff of engaging in rampant racial profiling and proffered a 128-page consent decree that would change the culture in the sheriff’s office. But the sheriff balked at having a monitor, saying “I will not surrender my office to the federal government!”  Five months later, the Justice Department filed the lawsuit. On the night before the suit was filed, Arpaio submitted a plan to bring his office up to civil-rights snuff, but still balked at the monitor idea. Perez said it was too little too late.

The son of politically persecuted Dominican immigrant parents who taught him “always to give back and make sure the ladder is down for everybody,” Perez said he believes enforcing civil-rights law is a “solemn and sacred obligation.” 

A slender, bespectacled man who rarely smiles, Perez doesn’t take the sheriff lightly and doesn’t seem to get sidetracked by Arpaio publicity stunts, such as forcing inmates to wear pink underwear. Instead, Perez likes to say things like:  “No one is above the law.”

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Many Latinos wonder why it took Perez so long to come to their aid. At a yogurt store across from the sheriff’s office in Phoenix, 27-year-old banker Pete Aranda said it’s “not good” when American citizens live with the possibility of getting “pulled over for being brown.”

In a statement, Danny Ortega, the chairman of the National Council of La Raza and a Phoenix lawyer, said: “The wheels of justice move slow ... our community has been waiting close to four years for today, with a lawsuit that’s finally filed against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Make no mistake, that our community has been under the cloud of fear for far too long. And this lawsuit in large part validates the fear that we have felt.”

The DOJ civil-rights lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, also names Maricopa County as a co-defendant with the sheriff and the sheriff’s office. The reason: the county gets funds from the feds and passes them on to the sheriff.

Perez told The Daily Beast he hasn’t ruled out filing a separate administrative action that seeks to halt federal funding to the county, and the sheriff, because federal money can’t be distributed to organizations that violate the Constitution.

It’s not a lot of money, compared to the overall budget. Last year, the feds gave the county about $155 million. Its total budget was about $2.2 billion. The county, in turn, funneled $5.3 million in federal funds to the sheriff’s office, which operates on a $260 million budget, said Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for the county.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has been unwilling and unable to handle their contentious sheriff. But the sheriff is expensive—since he took office in 1993, he’s cost the self-insured county $55.8 million in legal fees.

In part, that’s because they can’t fire him. He’s an elected official. Absent expensive and politically suicidal court actions, the county board of supervisors has remained paralyzed.

“I’m glad the Department of Justice finally took off the gloves,” former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a moderate Republican and Vietnam veteran who first clashed with Arpaio when he decided to investigate and prosecute a wrongful death of an inmate in the jail, told The Daily Beast.

Arpaio “would have me followed,” Romley said, and the sheriff’s office filed bar complaints against him, which were subsequently dismissed. Then Arpaio poured “about three quarters of a million dollars” into successfully fighting Romley’s reelection. It’s a common practice, Romley said, for the sheriff to do “anything to intimidate” critics.

Romley and other local leaders recently wrote the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, asking for a resolution of a separate federal criminal probe of the sheriff that centers on abuse-of-power allegations. (If Sheriff Joe’s found guilty of a felony in that case, he won’t be able to hold office.)

In the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court hearing on SB 1070, the immigration law that makes it a crime for unauthorized migrants to be in Arizona, the federal civil-rights lawsuit filed by Perez shows what can happen when police officers turn into immigration cops. Arpaio is a strong supporter of SB 1070 and vows to enforce it vigorously.

“We’ll see what happens,” said Perez as he prepared to return to Washington. The Arizona law won’t impact the current lawsuit, he said, but he noted SB 1070 is not “a permission slip to engage in racial profiling.”

And, he added, the feds have their eyes on Arizona.  

“We’re here,” he said.