RALEIGH (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department filed a civil rights complaint Thursday against a North Carolina sheriff, accusing his agency of systematic racial profiling of Latinos.
The lawsuit in U.S. District Court follows a two-year investigation during which federal authorities concluded that Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson and his deputies made unwarranted arrests with the goal of maximizing deportations.
Federal officials say Johnson violated the constitutional rights of numerous U.S. citizens and legal residents by illegally targeting and detaining Latinos without probable cause. The complaint also alleges that Johnson sought to obstruct the federal investigation by withholding documents and falsifying records.
The sheriff’s lawyer, Chuck Kitchen, said Thursday that he is reviewing the complaint and will issue a public response.
Johnson, a Republican first elected in 2002, has said the investigation of his department is politically motivated.
Thursday’s complaint was filed after Johnson and the Justice Department failed to reach a settlement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal laws bar police from engaging in a pattern of violating the constitutional protections of U.S. citizens or legal residents. In the complaint, federal authorities ask the court to impose sanctions intended to force Johnson’s compliance with federal law.
The civil complaint does not charge Johnson with a crime, and the federal court has no mechanism to remove a local elected official from office.
Johnson’s four-year term expires in 2014.
In September, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement terminated its 287(g) contract with Alamance County, blocking the sheriff’s access to a federal database used to check whether arrested people are in the country illegally. Johnson had been a vocal supporter of the program, which trained local law enforcement officers to perform immigration checks.
Alamance was one of six North Carolina counties participating in 287(g), which was established under the Bush administration and is being replaced with a new computer system in which ICE employees screen local jail inmates.
Johnson responded by requesting that federal officials remove all foreign-born detainees then housed at the Alamance jail. The county had been receiving $66.95 per inmate, per day from ICE, a lucrative revenue stream for the sheriff’s department.
The Justice Department has said Johnson abused his authority granted under 287(g), ordering his deputies to arrest motorists who appeared Latino — even for minor traffic infractions — while letting white drivers off with warnings.
“If you stop a Mexican, don’t write a citation, arrest him,” the sheriff was quoted as telling supervisors within his department, according to federal investigators.
His deputies, in turn, were as much as 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latinos, according the federal review of the department’s traffic stop records. Hispanics make up 11 percent of the population in Alamance County, which is about an hour’s drive northwest of Raleigh.
According to federal officials, Johnson also referred to Latinos as “taco eaters” prone to drinking, drug dealing and other crimes. He ordered special roadblocks in neighborhoods where Latinos live, and those with brown skin were stopped while whites were waved through, according to a summary of the federal investigation.
Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said Thursday that Johnson should have settled with the Justice Department rather than going to court.
“Doing so would not only save Alamance County taxpayers potentially thousands of dollars in legal fees, but help to rebuild trust among the community by guaranteeing that all residents of Alamance County receive fair and equal treatment from law enforcement,” Brook said.