Feds to Arpaio: Cooperate in Civil Rights Case or We’ll Sue

Justice officials tell the notorious sheriff he's got until Aug. 17 to hand over documents.

By Seth Freed Wessler Aug 04, 2010

A new letter from the Department of Justice says that Sheriff Joe Arpaio will have a federal lawsuit on his hands if he continues his refusal to cooperate with an investigation into discriminatory and unconstitutional practices. The notice, obtained by the Arizona Republic, gives the infamous sheriff until August 17 to comply.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights division has been investigating Arpaio’s use of racial profiling, national origin discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures for the past 16 months. But from the beginning Arpiao has refused to hand over documents to aid investigators, and now the Justice Department’s had enough. The letter, signed by Thomas Perez, who heads the civil rights department, sent a stern warning:

This is to notify that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is not in compliance with obligations under Title VI of the civil rights Act of 1964…to cooperate in the investigation of alleged national origin discrimination…

MCSO’s refusal to cooperate fully with the Division’s investigation makes it an extreme outlier when compared with other recipients of federal financial assistance, which have uniformly recognized their obligation to cooperate with the Division’s investigations of alleged discrimination. Although we would prefer voluntary compliance in this case as well, we will not hesitate to commence litigation after Aug. 17, if MCSO continues to take the position that it need not cooperate with the Division’s investigation.

Arpaio’s DC based lawyer Robert Driscoll says that the investigation is politically motivated and that the DOJ has no evidence that Arpaio is engaging in illegal, discriminatory practices. The investigators, says Driscoll, "have picked the man and the department and are trying to find a violation, rather than find a violation and then seeking to vindicate someone’s rights."

"They have been investigating for two years. If it was going on now, presumably they would have evidence of this now."

Arpaio’s antics, of course, have made national headlines for years. He’s not shy about forcing  inmates and immigrant detainees in his jails to wear pink underwear and making them sleep in tents in Arizona’s triple-digit heat. More recently, he’s become a vocal and vociferous supporter of Arizona’s SB 1070, which would mandate police check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being undocumented. 

The DOJ investigation is apparently looking into whether Arpaio was already enforcing such a policy, without the controversial law.

Arpaio has been able to arrest and detain countless numbers of undocumented immigrants in large part because of his participation in a federal program that deputizes local cops to enforce federal immigration law. As Aarti Shahani wrote last week, in 2007 the feds issued Arpaio the nation’s largest 287(g) contract, and the sheriff’s been a little too flamboyant in his implementation of the law:

Arpaio made a few too many headlines. The Justice Department launched an investigation into racial profiling, which is still pending. Napolitano, as head of Homeland Security, chopped off his street arrest powers, though she left him with the ability to flag people for deportation in the jails. Arpaio, using other state laws that make immigration a crime, continued to arrest people and hand them off for deportation.

Arpaio’s office has been responsible for about a quarter of all people deported or forced to leave the U.S. through the 287(g) program since 2007. That Arpaio’s antics may land him on the receiving end of a federal lawsuit isn’t surprising. It’s an overdue, albeit contradictory move since it was the feds who encouraged him to indiscriminately stop and detain immigrants in the first place.