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Arizona sheriff violates civil rights of Latinos, Justice Department says

Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, Ariz. is the most famous sheriff in America, known for his tough policies against illegal immigrants and the no-nonsense way he runs the county jail. Arpaio is now in trouble with the U.S. Justice Department, accused of violating Latinos' constitutional rights. NBC's George Lewis reports.

Updated at 5 p.m. EST

The U.S. government said Thursday that the man who called himself the toughest sheriff in America ran an office that has committed wide-ranging civil rights violations against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and heavy-handed immigration patrols based on racially charged complaints.

The U.S. Justice Department's expert on measuring racial profiling called it the most egregious case he has seen, the department's civil rights division chief told reporters.


The scathing report on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its release, marks the federal government's harshest rebuke of a man who rose to national prominence for his immigration crackdowns. Republican presidential candidates have competed for his endorsement.

Ross D. Franklin / AP

Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio is accused by the Department of Justice of committing wide range of civil rights violations against Latinos.

(Read the full Department of Justice letter here.)

Arpaio has long denied the racial profiling allegation. His office did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.

After the report was released, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would cut ties with Arpaio.

Secretary Janet Napolitano, formerly Arizona's governor, said the department is ending an agreement with the Maricopa County sheriff's office that allowed trained deputies to enforce immigration laws. It's also restricting the office's use of the Secure Communities program, which uses fingerprints collected in local jails to identify illegal immigrants.

Arpaio, 79, has built his reputation on jailing inmates in tents and dressing them in pink underwear, selling himself to voters as unceasingly tough on crime and pushing the bounds of how far local police can go to confront illegal immigration.

Apart from the civil rights investigation, a federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009. His department allegedly has misspent county money and failed to adequately investigate more than 400 sexual-abuse cases, many involving illegal immigrants, The New York Times reported.

The civil rights report will require Arpaio to set up effective policies against discrimination that a judge would monitor for compliance. Arpaio faces a Jan. 4 deadline for saying whether he wants to work out an agreement. If not, the federal government will sue him and let a judge decide the complaint.

In a press conference Thursday, Thomas Perez, the head of the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division, said the department's expert on measuring racial profiling called the case the most egregious case of racial profiling in the country that he has seen or reviewed in professional literature.

The civil rights report criticized the sheriff's office for launching immigration patrols, known as "sweeps," based on complaints that Latinos were merely gathering near a business without committing crimes.

Mark Ralston / Getty Images

An illegal immigrant is processed by deputies working for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, after an operational sweep in Phoenix on July 29, 2010.

The report said Latinos are four to nine times more likely to be stopped in traffic stops in Maricopa County than non-Latinos. Deputies on the immigrant-smuggling squad stop and arrest Latino drivers without good cause, the investigation found.

A review found that 20 percent of traffic reports handled by Arpaio's immigrant-smuggling squad from March 2006 to March 2009 were stops — almost all involving Latino drivers — that were done without reasonable suspicion. The stops rarely led to smuggling arrests.

Latinos who were in the U.S. legally were arrested or detained without cause during the sweeps, according to the report.

Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted since January 2008, according to figures provided by Arpaio's office.

The civil rights report also found that police supervisors often used county accounts to send emails that demeaned Latinos to colleagues. One email had a photo of a mock driver's license for a fictional state called "Mexifornia."

Federal investigators also focused heavily on the language barriers in Arpaio's jails.

Latino inmates with limited English skills were punished for failing to understand commands in English by being put in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day.

Detention officers refused to accept forms requesting basic daily services and reporting mistreatment when the documents were completed in Spanish, and they pressured Latinos with limited English skills to sign forms that implicated their legal rights without language assistance.

Arpaio, one of Arizona's leading Republicans, recently endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry's bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

"I don't know what all the details are, but I do know this, that nothing surprises me out of this administration," Perry said Thursday on Fox News. "This administration oversaw "Fast and Furious," a sting operation in which illegally obtained weapons were allowed across the border into Mexico in an effort to find drug cartel leaders.

"I would suggest to you that these people are out after Sheriff Joe," Perry said. "He is tough. And again, when I'm the president of the United States you're not going to see me going out after states like Arizona or Alabama suing sovereign states for making decisions particularly because the federal government has been abject failure at securing the border.

Rey Torres, president of the Arizona Latino Republican Association, told msnbc.com that his group declared a “vehement rejection of everything” in the Justice Department report.

He called Arpaio a needed “soldier in the fight to keep Arizona citizens safe from violence perpetrated along immigration corridors due to the federal government’s unwillingness to enforce immigration law in this region or any others.”

“It would be more interesting if [U.S. Attorney General Eric] Holder held himself up to the same legal scrutiny and once and for all revealed who is responsible for “Fast and Furious” rather than push these trumped up charges of racial profiling that distract from the issue.

The Arizona Democratic Party on Thursday, said, "It's hard to imagine a public official who more embodies corruption, waste and arrogance than Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We welcome the Justice Department's full attention to this case and hope it helps mainstream Arizona move on from Arpaio's extremism and embrace a new era of responsible leadership."

The Associated Press and msnbc.com's Jim Gold contributed to this report.

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