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Probe Finds Arizona Sheriff Violated Civil Rights

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio has a national reputation for being tough on crime, but now the Arizona lawman is in the spotlight for a different reason.

On Thursday, the Department of Justice released the results of a three-year investigation in which authorities conclude that Arpaio and his deputies are the ones who have been breaking the law.

According to investigators, Arpaio's office was found to routinely discriminate against Latinos and retaliate against its critics, in violation of both the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act. Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, says his investigation also uncovered widespread racial profiling.

"Our expert found that Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers," Perez says, adding that they were often stopped for no good cause. "This expert concluded that this case involved the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he had ever personally observed in the course of his work."

Federal investigators made two more critical findings regarding the Maricopa County sheriff's office. The first is an illegal pattern of retaliation that they say comes straight from the top of the department.

"People opposed to the department's policies were frequently arrested and jailed for no reason or forced to defend against specious civil complaints or other baseless charges," Perez says.

Those retaliated against include local government officials, attorneys who raised the specter of discrimination by the sheriff and even some reporters in the community.

The second critical finding is that of detention officers punishing Latino inmates with limited English skills for failing to respond to commands in English, refusing to accept grievance complaints written in Spanish and forcing inmates to sign English-language forms that could waive their constitutional rights without offering translation help.

In a news conference, Arpaio said it was a sad day. The sheriff also suggested the Justice Department report was overblown.

"When you arrest 50,000 people on the streets and in our jails — 50,000 people — and you get a couple of complaints, there is no pattern and I think that will be proven when we get a chance to prove it," he said.

Arpaio vowed to keep up the fight until the problem of illegal immigration is resolved. "I will continue to do my job and enforce all the laws," he said.

The new Justice findings were enough to prompt action from the Department of Homeland Security, which called the report troubling.

Homeland Security officials, led by DHS Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, say they'll cut off the sheriff's access to the federal Secure Communities program, effective immediately. That means that when Arpaio's deputies book a suspect and submit fingerprints to the FBI, they'll no longer be able to see someone's immigration status.

As for the Department of Justice, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez says their case is about much more than statistics.

"It's about real people," he says, "law-abiding residents of Maricopa County who are caught up in a web of unconstitutional activity and unlawfully stopped, detained and sometimes arrested."

Perez says he's still looking into claims that the sheriff's office failed to investigate hundreds of allegations of sexual assault in recent years and he wants to work with Arpaio to develop a consent agreement that could be enforced by a federal court.

The Justice Department has given Arpaio 60 days to respond. If he doesn't, America's toughest sheriff may be staring down a federal lawsuit.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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