Feds to Sheriff Joe: Maricopa County is Not Your Personal Fiefdom

I’m not a huge fan of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I’ve written about him before. While I understand the appeal of his “get tough” approach to fighting crime, I think that his methods run roughshod over the Bill of Rights. And, to be frank, he strikes me as having a serious lust for power. It’s funny how the people who want power the most are usually the ones who shouldn’t have it.

Lately, the federal government has been keeping a close eye on the Maricopa County sheriff’s office, investigating it for violations of federal civil rights law. It now looks like this conflict is finally coming to a head. The U.S. Justice Department has, for the first time since the investigation began, openly alleged that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office routinely violates the U.S. constitution, as well as federal civil rights laws.

They have given the sheriff’s department an ultimatum: enter a legally-binding (and court-enforceable) agreement with the Justice Department to cease all unlawful activities, or face a civil lawsuit seeking to compel the department to comply with federal laws.

The allegations made by the federal government include a culture of racial profiling, discrimination, and routine violations of suspects’ rights to due process and privacy.

While none of these allegations have been proven, they are troubling nonetheless. In response, the Department of Homeland Security has suspended the authority of the Maricopa County sheriff’s department to investigate the immigration status of suspects it arrests (immigration is a federal matter, but the federal government delegates some of its enforcement power to state and local authorities, and has the right to revoke that power, as well).

Also, the sheriff’s single-minded obsession with illegal immigration has consumed a huge portion of the office’s resources. As a result, some 400 alleged sex crimes in Maricopa County have gone without proper investigation.

Of course, Joe Arpaio claims that the allegations are purely political. But it should be noted that this federal investigation began back in 2008, when George W. Bush was president. However, most of the focus has been on the Obama administration’s role, partly because the investigation was not disclosed to the public until after Obama took office.

Obviously, I hope that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office cooperates with the Justice Department in this matter. Many other large law-enforcement agencies, including those in Los Angeles and New Orleans, have cooperated with the federal government in instituting civil rights reforms in the past, without the need for the courts to intervene.

But if they don’t cooperate, I hope the Justice Department aggressively pursues this case. Since 9/11 (and before then, to a lesser extent), some law enforcement agencies seem to be under the impression that we have to choose between effective law enforcement and civil liberties. This is simply untrue. And the Justice Department seems to finally be recognizing this fact. After all, if people can’t feel secure in their own homes from the actions of government agents who are supposed to be protecting them, how can we plausibly claim that we’re being kept safe?

I’m sure there are some people in Maricopa County who genuinely agree with Sheriff Joe’s goals and methods, and they will likely be upset with what they see as meddling by the federal government in a state’s internal affairs. Like it or not, however, Maricopa County is still part of the United States, and the U.S. has this thing called the constitution, which limits what states can do.

Plenty of American cities have managed to protect basic civil liberties while still maintaining a reasonable level of public safety. Hopefully, Maricopa County can do the same.

Of course, in the United States, most sheriffs are elected officials. If the voting public becomes fed up with the tactics of a particular sheriff, they can vote him or her out of office. Joe Arpaio has been re-elected many times, so it would seem, on the surface, that the people of Maricopa County approve of Sheriff Apraio’s objectives and methods. However, even if he has popular support of his constituents, the constitutional rights of individuals are not subject to majority vote.

Certain principles, like due process, the right to privacy, free speech, and the right to equal treatment under the law, regardless of race or national origin, are inviolable under the Constitution. They must be upheld, no matter how inconvenient or unpopular it is to do so. Hopefully, if these allegations are true, the appropriate action is taken to ensure that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s department commits itself to upholding the relatively modest standards set by the Constitution, and is able to move on from this unfortunate situation.

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