Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

RIGHTS-US: ACLU Sues Controversial Sheriff

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Aug 21 2009 (IPS) - The man who boasts he is “America’s Toughest Sheriff” – and who is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for civil rights violations – this week added another lawsuit to thousands already pending against him.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arizona are suing the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio, and several of his 164 deputies for the illegal arrest and detention of a U.S. citizen and a legal resident.

The ACLU suit contends that Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) deputies racially profiled the father and son, Julian and Julio Mora, as they drove their pickup truck on a busy public road and illegally arrested and detained them, violating the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

Harini Raghupathi, an attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, told IPS, “The unlawful arrest and detention that Julian and Julio Mora suffered highlights MCSO’s pattern of blatant disregard for the fundamental protections of the Fourth Amendment” of the U.S. Constitution.

That provision bars unlawful searches and seizures without probable cause and a warrant.

“This country was founded on the freedom of individuals to go about their business without fear of being unlawfully stopped, picked up, or interrogated by the government. Here, we see the Moras were denied this most essential freedom,” she said.

According to the ACLU, Julian Mora was driving to work when, without provocation, an MCSO vehicle cut in front of him forcing him to stop abruptly. MCSO deputies then ordered the father and son out of their vehicle, then frisked and handcuffed them.

The complaint says, “Although the deputies had no reason to believe that the Moras had broken any law or were in the country unlawfully, they transported the Moras to Handyman Maintenance, Inc. (HMI), where MCSO was conducting a raid that morning. For the next three hours, the Moras were held at HMI, where they were denied food and water and forbidden contact with the outside world. They were not released until they were interrogated.”

It continues: “The ordeal was particularly humiliating for 66-year-old Julian Mora who, due to his diabetic condition, has difficulty controlling his bladder and had an urgent need to use the bathroom. MCSO personnel, however, rejected his repeated requests.”

“Eventually, deputies escorted him outside where he was made to urinate in the parking lot. MCSO personnel later mocked his son Julio when he had to use the bathroom, because he had difficulty going with his hands still cuffed.”

Nineteen-year-old Julio Mora, a U.S. citizen, says, “To this day, I don’t know why the officers stopped us out of all the cars on the road. We were treated like criminals and never told why. I was very scared. I never thought something like this would happen to me. Now I know it can happen to anyone, citizens too. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Civil libertarians say the latest lawsuit is emblematic of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. – arguably most intense in states like Arizona that border Mexico – and of mixed signals coming from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit has federal responsibility for enforcing immigration regulations.

Under the administration of former President Bill Clinton, Congress passed a comprehensive immigration bill in 1996. The legislation contains a little-known section called 278(g), which authorises local law enforcement to engage in raids on businesses believed to have employees who are undocumented, and to arrest and detain those workers.

During the George W. Bush presidency, use of 278(g) was aggressively ramped up. By August 2008, more than 840 officers in 20 states were deputised, and 70,000 immigrants detained. County sheriffs make up 62 percent of ICE partners.

In recent weeks, despite objections from civil rights lawyers and many law enforcement agencies, the Barack Obama administration’s new secretary of DHS, Janet Napolitano, indicated her intention to expand this program, though she says it will now focus on illegal immigrants who are known to be serious criminals.

ICE asserts that the 287(g) programme is not designed to crack down on overcrowded apartments, day labourer activities, or traffic offences.

The Bush administration granted the largest and most powerful 287(g) contract to Sheriff Arpaio, despite the fact that jails under his supervision cost his county over 43 million dollars in death and abuse lawsuits.

Arpaio is accused of housing prisoners in tents, making them appear before media TV cameras wearing pink underwear, shackling them in chain gangs, and trespassing into neighbouring jurisdictions to unlawfully dump immigrants at the border for deportation. Traffic violators and day labourers are Arpaio’s main targets.

Eleven agencies in the country have signed the new so-called 287(g) agreement, while 66 agencies operating under the old programme – including Arpaio’s – were given 90 days starting Jul. 10 to decide whether they want to agree to follow the revamped programme.

The new regulations require Arpaio to clear plans for immigration sweeps in advance with ICE and coordinate the release of information to the news media.

Arpaio, who called the new programme “an amnesty for illegal immigrants”, has not yet indicated whether he will accept DHS’s new terms.

He said, “I’m not going to bend to the federal government, I’m going to do my job. I don’t report to the federal government, I report to the people.” He has been reelected multiple times.

But, even as he considered the new arrangements, Arpaio launched a three-day immigration sweep east of metro Phoenix on July 24. Deputies arrested 74 people; 25 of them were illegal immigrants.

The Associated Press reports that this sweep was the latest of 10 Arpaio has conducted in the last two and a half years. Many were held in heavily Latino areas in metropolitan Phoenix, with deputies stopping drivers for traffic violations.

The sweeps generated protests of racial profiling and have led to a Justice Department investigation of Arpaio. Arpaio said the people who were pulled over were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes. The raids have not resulted in the conviction of any employer for an employer sanctions violation.

But even if Arpaio declines to sign on to the new DHS regulations, he has made it clear that intends to continue cracking down on illegal immigration by enforcing more limited Arizona immigration laws.

Arpaio has a long history of conflict with other law enforcement and judicial authorities.

As reported by William Finnegan in The New Yorker magazine, “A federal investigation found Arpaio’s deputies used ‘stun guns’ on inmates strapped into restraint chairs; some have died in those chairs.”

One lawsuit brought by a dead prisoners’ family ended in an eight-million-dollar settlement after “a surveillance video that showed 14 guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoners, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.”

From 2004 through November 2007, Arpaio was the target of 2,150 lawsuits in U.S. District Court and hundreds more in Maricopa County courts – 50 times as many prison-conditions lawsuits as the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston jail systems combined.

Arpaio is also named in a class-action lawsuit that centres on the treatment of pretrial detainees. The suit claims Arpaio is violating the constitutional rights of those detainees.

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