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Justice Department sues Joe Arpaio for discrimination: Is he cornered? (+video)

The Justice Department alleges Joe Arpaio, an anti-illegal immigration icon and Arizona sheriff, discriminates against Latinos. Judges in such cases typically have a lot of leeway to intervene.  

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Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio arrives at a news conference in Phoenix Thursday. The US Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against Sheriff Arpaio and his department earlier in the day, alleging racial profiling against Latinos in the Maricopa County community.

Joshua Lott/REUTERS

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The Justice Department made good on its promise to sue Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio Thursday, reiterating accusations that the longtime lawman and his department systematically discriminate against Latinos and retaliate against critics.

Assistant US Attorney General Thomas Perez called the legal action an unusual step taken as a last resort in light of Mr. Arpaio’s unwillingness to cooperate.

Efforts to address “serious civil rights and public safety issues have proven elusive here in Maricopa County,” Mr. Perez said at a news conference.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Phoenix, asks a federal judge to issue an order halting alleged discriminatory practices the Justice Department identified in a civil-rights investigation that lasted three years. It also asks the judge to require the sheriff’s department to adopt policies and police training that rectify the problems.

"Federal judges have a lot of discretion and flexibility in these types of cases,” says Paul Bender, a constitutional law professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. “With Sheriff Joe you never know, but what could happen is he could have a federal court declaring that he’s acting unconstitutionally and illegally, and ordering him to stop.”

If the Justice Department can prove the allegations against Arpaio, and the court issues an order that he defies, the sheriff could be held in contempt, Professor Bender says.

Still, it would be difficult to ensure that the alleged discriminatory practices, such as calling Latino inmates derogatory names, are discontinued without some type of oversight on a day-to-day basis, he adds.

“That’s what they’re probably going to need to have here, because he just doesn’t do what you tell him to do,” Bender says of Arpaio.

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