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Feds Sue Arizona Sheriff In Immigration Probe

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio gained notoriety for building tent cities for inmates in the desert and making them wear pink clothes. But lately, Arpaio's been spending a lot of time clashing with the federal government. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on the man who's often called America's toughest sheriff.

CARRIE JOHNSON: After more than year of posturing on both sides, the Justice Department finally sued Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio�yesterday. The case focuses on a narrow issue: whether the Phoenix lawman turned over�arrest records and other documents to federal investigators. Arpaio offered a reaction on local television.

Sheriff JOE ARPAIO: We just met with these people in Washington. We wrote letters. They have hundreds and thousands of our reports - hundreds and thousands. And we thought we were getting along fine. Then I hear they're suing for the documents. What is this?

JOHNSON: But Cecilia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union�says the federal case comes as no surprise.

Ms. CECILIA WANG (American Civil Liberties): For a period of many years there has been a lot of community outcry about civil rights abuses by the sheriff's office, ranging from racial profiling against Latino motorists to the sheriff's office going in to neighborhoods and essentially doing massive law enforcement sweeps, asking people for their identification.

JOHNSON: The ACLU and a Mexican-American legal group already sued Sheriff Arpaio over the sweeps. The sheriff says more than half of the people he busted in those sweeps are illegal immigrants, and that he's only following state law.

The Justice Department isn't so sure about that. It's been investigating the county's police practices and its treatment of inmates. The Justice Department says because the sheriff receives federal grant money, he's got to open up his records to federal authorities.

But Arpaio's lawyer, Bob Driscoll, says the government case is less than meets the eye.

Mr. BOB DRISCOLL (Attorney): Importantly, this lawsuit's I think significant for what it doesn't say. It doesn't allege any racial profiling. It doesn't allege any discrimination, because after 18 months of investigating the sheriff's office, DOJ doesn't have anything.

JOHNSON: The lawsuit against Arpaio is the latest in a series of clashes�between the Obama administration and the state of Arizona. This summer the Justice Department sued to block the state's tough new anti-immigration law. And on Monday, the civil rights unit sued the Maricopa County Community College system, arguing the schools discriminated against job candidates who aren't U.S. citizens.

Again, Bob Driscoll.

Mr. DRISCOLL: I mean, I find it interesting this is their third lawsuit against Arizona defendants for discrimination in the last three weeks. And it looks like they're more interested in filing a lawsuit than they are to finding out actually what's going on in Maricopa County.

JOHNSON: Justice says the county's refusal to turn over public information is unprecedented. And Wang says there could be another explanation: The ACLU won sanctions in its case against the sheriff's office because of alleged document destruction.

Ms. WANG: Shedding sunlight and requiring the sheriff's office to turn over its documents to the federal government will allow the community in Maricopa County, as well as the federal Justice Department, to hold the sheriff to his duty to not only uphold the U.S. Constitution but just to abide by it.

JOHNSON: For his part, Sheriff Arpaio says it's Washington that's not playing fair. And he'll make that case to a judge.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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