DOJ vs. Joe Arpaio: Here Comes the Lawsuit

The DOJ has been investigating the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office for alleged civil rights abuses since 2009.

By Julianne Hing Sep 02, 2010

The Department of Justice announced today that it is taking Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to court for obstruction of justice. According to the DOJ complaint, Arpaio’s office has refused to cooperate with a federal investigation into his office over allegations that Arpaio abused prisoners and relied on racial profiling to fill his jails.

The DOJ and Arpaio have been tussling in public for months, but it came to a head in August, when the DOJ sent a letter to Arpaio threatening legal action unless the sheriff complied. After Arpaio failed to turn over files to the Justice Department by their August 17 deadline the two parties had a joint meeting that sounded hopeful.

On August 25, the Arizona Republic reported that the DOJ has set two new deadlines in September and October for Arpaio; the Justice Department is trying to gain access to six of Arpaio’s jails to tour the facilities and interview staff. Investigators also demanded that Arpaio turn over arrest records. On August 27 Arpaio’s office responded by saying it would not cooperate.

The DOJ has been investigating the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for alleged civil rights abuses since 2009. Arpaio, who’s already responsible for one quarter of all the deportations in the country, has had his arrest powers restricted by the federal government. But that hasn’t stopped the cowboy sheriff from his very liberal interpretation of his powers.

Arpaio’s well known for his immigration sweeps through his juristiction–he ran his seventeenth on the day that SB 1070 went into effect. Arpaio’s been known to parade detainees down Phoenix streets, hold immigrants in tent cities and force people to wear pink underwear for the fun of it. But his jails also have a well-documented history of abuse. Settling all the various lawsuits against the MCSO have cost the county $42 million in the 16 years that Arpaio’s been in power.

"The actions of the sheriff’s office are unprecedented. It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. This is the first time the DOJ has sued to gain access to public facilities and documents.

Read the DOJ’s complaint here.