RALEIGH – The release of a federal investigative report that painted a North Carolina sheriff as a racist who routinely violates the civil rights of Latinos and sought to obstruct a federal investigation could mark the beginning of a protracted legal fight.
U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Nanda Chitre confirmed to The Associated Press that the agency has no plan to prosecute Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson on criminal charges. But, Johnson and the federal government appear headed for a lawsuit that could last for years.
University of North Carolina School of Law professor Catherine Y. Kim said there is no mechanism for the U.S. government to remove a duly-elected local official from office. Johnson is in the midst of a 4-year term that doesn’t expire until 2014.
“But just because they aren’t going to throw the sheriff in jail, certainly doesn’t mean he is off the hook,” said Kim, who teaches civil rights law.
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. Following a more than two-year investigation, lawyers for the Justice Department determined that Johnson and his deputies illegally targeted, stopped, detained and arrested Latinos without probable cause with the aim of boosting deportations.
In an 11-page report issued Tuesday, the Justice Department recommended a list of steps to end discrimination by the department, including remedial training, new internal procedures for recognizing and investigating civil rights violations and community outreach.
The Republican sheriff said the accusations against him are politically motivated.
If Johnson fails to reach a negotiated settlement, federal officials suggested they would sue the sheriff. Johnson has given no indication he is interested in a settlement or if he has given any thought to resigning.
Chuck Kitchen, Johnson’s attorney, called the prospects for a negotiated settlement “unlikely.” He suggested the federal report is little more than unfounded allegations with no evidence or named witnesses to back it up.
If the Justice Department sues and a federal judge agrees that Johnson and his deputies practiced discriminatory policing, Kim said a federal court could impose sanctions on the department and hold the sheriff in contempt of court if he fails to comply. The federal government could also cut federal funding for county programs.
“Based on its findings, the Justice Department clearly believes it has a strong case,” Kim said.
The tough-talking sheriff rebuffed interview requests from The Associated Press this week, but suggested in a written statement that the federal probe was a political attack by the Obama Administration. He denied his department has ever discriminated against “Spanish speaking persons.”
First elected in 2002, Johnson has been among North Carolina’s most vocal proponents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) program, which trained local law enforcement officers to perform immigration checks. Enacted under the administration of President George W. Bush, the program is now being phased out by ICE after numerous complaints of racial profiling.
Alamance was one of six North Carolina counties participating in the program.
“Everybody gets all upset and says it’s just looking at the Hispanic population,” Johnson said during a legislative hearing last year. “It’s not. We have identified Italians, Germans, (people) from Denmark, other nations. Not just from Spanish-speaking countries.”
Johnson’s office could not immediately say how many immigrants have been deported from Alamance or their countries of origin. But Alamance County, about an hour’s drive northwest of Raleigh, has a national reputation among Latinos as a place to be avoided and is often cited as a trouble spot by advocates for immigration reform.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez outlined numerous statements and incidents in the Justice Department report that federal authorities said reveal Johnson’s racial prejudice against Latinos.
“The discriminatory conduct we observed is deeply rooted in a culture that begins with Sheriff Johnson and permeates the entire agency,” said Perez, who oversees the agency’s civil rights division.
According to the federal report, Johnson also referred to Latinos as “taco eaters” prone to drinking, drug dealing and pedophilia. He ordered special roadblocks in neighborhoods where Latinos live. People with brown skin were stopped while whites were waved through.
“If you stop a Mexican, don’t write a citation, arrest him,” the sheriff is quoted as telling his department’s supervisors, according to the federal report.
His deputies 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 only 11 percent of the population in Alamance.
Following the release of the Justice Department report last week, ICE officials cancelled Alamance’s 287(g) contract, cutting off the sheriff’s access to the federal database used at the county jail to check who is in the country illegally.
At Johnson’s request, federal officials also removed 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.
There were no signs last week that political support for Johnson had waned at home, however.
After a closed session meeting to discuss the federal report Monday, members of the Republican-dominated county board of commissioners had nothing but praise for the embattled sheriff.
“I think he has done a fantastic job for the county,” Commission Vice-Chair Bill Lashley told a reporter for the Burlington Times-News. “He is the best sheriff we’ve had.”