America’s Most Lawless Sheriff

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s name is synonymous with his ruthless treatment of the undocumented immigrants under his charge. He’s known for cramming detained immigrants into outdoor “tent cities” he proudly likens to concentration camps, and for parading prisoners around in pink underwear to humiliate them. Today, however, the Department of Justice completed an inquiry that stretched over three years and two presidential administrations, and which revealed a culture of racism and lawbreaking reminiscent of the Jim Crow south. According to DOJ’s findings, Arpaio “engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos; and unlawfully retaliates against individuals who complain about or criticize” his policies. His jails punish inmates who cannot speak English. His officers fail to investigate real crimes — including more than 400 sex crimes. And there are multiple incidents of excessive force directed at Latinos.

The rampant lawbreaking by Arpaio and his staff includes:

  • ‘Driving While Latino’ Arrests: The Justice Department found that “Latino drivers are four to nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers.” Worse, as many as one in five traffic stops by Arapaio’s deputies violate the Constitution, and nearly all of these illegal stops involved Latino drivers. In one incident, a lawful resident of the United States was pulled over and asked to show ID. Although he produced an Arizona ID card, a valid work visa, a Social Security card and a Mexican passport, the man was arrested for failing to provide identification and jailed for 13 days.
  • ‘Working While Latino’ Arrests: Arpaio’s office also frequently engaged in “crime suppression activities” targeting individuals for nothing more than having “dark skin” or speaking Spanish. In one incident, Arpaio and one of his top deputies ordered a police operation after receiving a letter claiming that the workers at a particular McDonald’s did not speak English.
  • Punishing Spanish-Only Speakers: Arpaio’s jails routinely punish Latino inmates who do not understand commands given in English, often placing those inmates in lock down or in solitary confinement. His jails also deny basic services to Spanish-speaking inmates by only announcing those programs in English and by refusing to accept basic requests communicated in Spanish. One inmate was refused new bed sheets, even after she used a fellow inmate to explain in English that her old sheets were soiled, because the jail told the inmate that she had to make the request herself in English.
  • A Campaign of Intimidation: Arpaio also retaliates against individuals who criticize his practices by subjecting them to baseless lawsuits, unlawful arrests, and even retaliatory detentions. One community organizer who frequently spoke out against Arpaio was arrested twice — once for doing nothing more than standing across the street watching a protest. In another incident, Arpaio’s deputies arrested several of his critics during a public meeting of the County Board of Supervisors because those critics attempted to present their complaints against Arpaio’s office.

For years, Arpaio behaved as if he is the law, sweeping up Latinos in a racist crusade and lashing out at his critics. Today, however, he received a stern warning that there are forces in this nation that exist to hold him accountable — and one of them is the United States Department of Justice. DOJ warns that, while they “prefer to resolve this matter without resort to further litigation,” they will “not hesitate to file suit, if necessary.”

DOJ’s ability to end Arpaio’s reign of terror, however, will depend entirely on whether there are good judges and justices willing to uphold the law if DOJ proves in court that he has broken it. Republican presidential candidates have lined up to kiss Arpaio’s ring. If any one of them should have the opportunity to appoint new judges, it could leave the rest of the nation powerless against Arpaio-style lawbreaking.

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Advocacy Team