Justice Department Sues Sheriff Joe Arpaio Over Alleged Latino Abuse

May 10, 2012 8:22 a.m.

Updated: 12:45PM

The Justice Department finally filed suit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, accusing the Arizona official of engaging “in a pattern or practice of unlawful discriminatory police conduct directed at Latinos in Maricopa County.”

Federal authorities allege that Arpaio and his office have unconstitutionally and unlawfully targeted Latinos during traffic stops and during crime suppression operations. DOJ alleges that MCSO unlawfully detained Latino drivers and passengers and conducted unconstitutional searches and seizures in addition to illegally targeting Latino workers during worksite raids.

DOJ’s suit, filed in the District of Arizona, accuses jail officials of referring to Latinos as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” and “stupid Mexicans.” The suit says Arpaio “voiced his biased opinion of Latinos and Latino culture” in a book he coauthored in 2008.

“Arpaio singles out Mexicans and Latinos as different from all other immigrant groups in America,” the complaint says. “For example, Arpaio states that Latinos maintain ‘language [,] customs [and] beliefs separate from the mainstream,’ and are trying to “reconquest” American soil through migration to the United States.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, flew to Arizona to announce the lawsuit, which is the result of a three year long investigation. DOJ first announced the findings of their investigation back in December but tried to work with Arpaio to settle the issue and come to an agreement over the past several months. They acknowledged the negotiations had failed in April.

“Leadership starts at the top,” Perez told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “All of the alleged violations that our outlined in the complaint are the product of a culture of disregard for basic rights within the culture of MCSO that starts at the top and pervades the organization.”

The amount of time that it takes to settle the issue is “entirely in the hands of Sheriff Arpaio and the leadership of MCSO,” Perez said.

“We stand ready and continue to stand ready to actually try and work toward a comprehensive tomorrow, but that’s proven elusive,” Perez said in response to a question from TPM.

“I’d like to say that the answer to that is we can resolve it in short order. We can resolve it in short order, but it requires the will to do so. And the stakes are high, because this is not simply a case that impacts the Latino community, this has a public safety impact across the board for the residents of Maricopa County. I am confident that we could forge solutions that are sustainable that make the community safer, but you have to have the will on both sides to do so,” Perez said. “Thusfar, that will on the part of the Sheriff’s office and the Sheriff himself has proven to be elusive.”

This isn’t the first time the Justice Department has sued Arpaio’s office for alleged civil rights abuses. In 1997, the federal government accused the agency of a pattern of using excessive force on inmates in Maricopa County jails. While the lawsuit ended in a settlement, some of Arpaio’s critics now say the agreement was largely unenforced and resulted in little lasting change.

Perez said that the prior suit, which related only to the jail practices, had no oversight.

“As a result, the reforms proved not to be sustainable. So history in the jail process is repeating itself in today’s complaints. And that’s why it’s so important to put together the blueprint for reform but then to make sure in the implementation you have independent eyes and ears looking at it, offering assistance and making sure that the reforms are actually taking place and are successful,” Perez said.

Additional reporting by Nick Martin.

Latest Muckraker
Change to Commenting Permissions Starting May 1st

Beginning May 1, 2021, the option to comment on an article will be reserved only for TPM members. Non-members and those with free accounts will still be able to read comments both past and present, but will no longer be able to participate.

We hope that dedicated participants in the comments will join us as members, and want to make it as easy as possible for you to to so. We are offering 40% OFF an annual Prime membership to TPM readers with commenting accounts.

40% Off an Annual Prime Membership

We also offer FREE memberships to those experiencing financial hardship and FREE memberships for students.

View all options
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: