By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — America's self-proclaimed toughest sheriff is fast approaching a crossroads where he must decide either to settle claims that his officers racially profiled Latinos in his trademark immigration patrols — and overhaul his practices — or take his chances at trial.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces an April 14 deadline for concluding talks with the U.S. Justice Department to settle a wide range of civil rights allegations, including that the sheriff launched some immigration patrols based on letters from people who complained about people with dark skin congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish but never reporting an actual crime. The sheriff has become nationally known for his tough stance against illegal immigration.
A settlement could lead to changes long sought by Arpaio's critics and short-circuit a separate racial profiling case set for trial this summer. Most police agencies facing similar pressures from the Justice Department opt to settle, but critics wonder whether the sheriff's stubborn streak — a quality that endears him to his supporters — will lead him to confront the allegations in court.
"It makes him a hero," said Antonio Bustamante, a Phoenix civil rights attorney and member of a group of Latino and black leaders calling for an overhaul of Arpaio's policies. "We have a different character as a sheriff."
The Justice Department has accused Arpaio's office of racially profiling Latinos, punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish and having a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights. The sheriff's office has denied allegations of systematic discriminatory policing, and asked federal authorities to provide facts. But it also conditionally agreed to talk with the Justice Department about ways to correct any violations.
The Justice Department is seeking an agreement that would require the sheriff's office to train officers in how to make constitutional traffic stops, collect data on people arrested in traffic stops and reach out to Latinos to ensure them that the department is there to also protect them.
The federal agency has said it's prepared to sue Arpaio and let a judge decide the matter if no agreement can be worked out. Earlier in the three-year investigation, the Justice Department filed a 2010 lawsuit against the sheriff, alleging that his office refused to fully cooperate with a request for records and access to jails and employees. The case was settled last summer after the sheriff's office handed over records and gave access to employees and jails.
After his lawyers attended a negotiation session in early February, Arpaio's office said both sides agreed to work on an agreement and were committed to avoiding unnecessary litigation.
The status of negotiations since the February meeting is unknown. Arpaio's lawyers didn't return messages seeking comment, and the Justice Department declined to provide an update, other than saying negotiations are continuing.
Arpaio said he didn't know how the case would be resolved, but that his lawyers are trying to cooperate. "We'll just have to look at the big picture and see what they want and see if we agree to it," Arpaio said. "I presume that if we don't agree, they'll go to court."
Separate from the Justice Department's allegations, a lawsuit that alleges that Arpaio's deputies racially profiled Latinos in immigration patrols is scheduled for a July 19 trial in federal court.
A small group of Latinos who filed the lawsuit alleged that officers based some traffic stops on the race of the drivers of in the vehicles, and made the stops so they could inquire about the driver's immigration status. Arpaio denies racial profiling, saying people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow, who will decide the lawsuit, has already imposed restrictions on Arpaio's immigration powers and said at a March 23 court hearing that a settlement in the Justice Department's investigation might make the lawsuit moot.
But if Arpaio refuses to settle and the federal government follows through on its threat to sue, the profiling lawsuit will go to trial, ensuring that the allegations would be publicly aired a few months before voters would decide whether to give Arpaio a sixth term as sheriff of the county covering the Phoenix area.
Lawyers who've worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division say the targets of such investigations typically are not required to acknowledge wrongdoing as part of settlements.
Brian Landsberg, a professor at the University of Pacific's law school in California, who worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division for more than 20 years and wrote a book about the division, said Arpaio could reject settlement offers if he feels the federal government's facts are incorrect, but that approach carries risks.
"If it goes to trial and they lose, then the court could impose more onerous sanctions," Landsberg said, noting that one incentive for settling a civil rights case is so police agencies can help shape the settlements they'll have to operate under.
Bustamante said the sheriff might decline a settlement offer in hopes of seeing what becomes of the racial lawsuit, which he can always settle if it isn't going well. "He might regard it better to hang in there for a while and see how close he can get to the election," Bustamante said.
As for the sheriff, he said his November re-election bid isn't a factor in his consideration of whether to settle. "I don't care about the politics," Arpaio said. "I don't plan things for political reasons."
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press