WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) – The U.S. Justice Department failed to prove a North Carolina county sheriff ordered deputies to target Hispanic residents in violation of their civil rights, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Judge Thomas Schroeder dismissed the government's civil lawsuit against Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson. Justice Department attorneys failed to demonstrate that Johnson's agency engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional law enforcement against Hispanics, the judge ruled. The government had alleged Johnson's deputies routinely targeted Latinos for traffic stops.
A statistical study commissioned by the DOJ said the Alamance County Sheriff's Office was as much as 10 times more likely to stop Hispanic drivers for traffic infractions than non-Latino drivers. But that evidence fell short since government attorneys failed to point to anyone who was mistreated, Schroeder wrote in a 253-page ruling issued nearly a year after he presided over a trial without a jury.
"Not a single person testified that any ACSO employee carried out any alleged improper directive or otherwise violated any individual's constitutional rights," Schroeder wrote. "Indeed, all witnesses, including those called by the Government, denied that they ever did or knew any ACSO officer who did."
DOJ spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the agency was disappointed in the ruling and will review it before deciding whether to appeal.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said it and other groups had received complaints about Johnson, his deputies, and their treatment of Latinos for years.
"We urge the Department of Justice to appeal this miscarriage of justice in order to ensure all Alamance County residents can again have confidence in their Sheriff's department," ACLU staff attorney Carolyna Caicedo Manrique said in a statement.
Schroeder didn't entirely absolve Johnson's agency, noting some jail officers targeted minorities with ethnic slurs, which the judge called "offensive and reprehensible activity that should not be tolerated in any civil society, much less in a law enforcement environment."
Johnson's agency also didn't effectively track the selection of traffic checkpoints and lacked reviews of who was being stopped and what good those stops did, Schroeder said.
"The absence of a finding of a violation of federal law should not be construed as approval of the status quo, and such matters deserve immediate attention," the judge wrote.
Johnson only found out about the conduct of some jailers during depositions leading up to the trial and put new policies in effect to prevent a repeat in the future, said his attorney, Chuck Kitchen.
"The sheriff does not tolerate any discrimination against anyone," Kitchen said, adding that Johnson has Cherokee Indian ancestry.
The Justice Department said Johnson targeted Latinos to boost deportations after his agency in 2007 began participating in the federal 287(g) program, which trained local law enforcement officers to perform immigration checks. Hispanics arrested in the county were then automatically referred to investigators at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for potential deportation, the government said. ICE cut short its agreement with Alamance County in 2012.
Two retired lieutenants testified last year that during a traffic checkpoint in 2007 or 2008 Johnson demanded that Latino drivers be locked up after being pulled over. The checkpoint was set up during morning rush hour outside a mobile home park primarily populated by Hispanic renters, according to their testimony.
But Schroeder noted that the only Latino the Justice Department produced to testify about alleged targeting wasn't detained and also praised deputies for collecting fingerprints and searching for clues after he suffered two home burglaries. Burlington resident Jose Luis Arzola testified that during a 2010 traffic stop by an Alamance County deputy, he was asked for his "papers." But Arzola said he was released without a ticket after he told the deputy he had documents at his home showing he was a legal immigrant to the U.S.
Johnson, a Republican, was elected to a fourth four-year term in November after running unopposed.