U.S. Justice Department Versus Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson: Investigation to the Present

Photo by: James Clayton

On December 20, 2012, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) filed a civil rights lawsuit against Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson alleging he intentionally discriminated against Latinos.  The DOJ filed the lawsuit in the Middle District of North Carolina almost three months after having released findings from an investigation after receiving complaints about Sheriff Terry Johnson.

The Investigation

The two-year investigation began in June 2010 and included interviews with more than 125 individuals, including Alamance County residents and former Alamance County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) employees.  In September 2012, the DOJ released its findings from the investigation.  Notably, the investigation revealed “a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against Latinos” in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and Title VI.  One conclusion drawn from the findings included that ACSO deputies targeted Latinos to increase deportations through the federal 287(g) program, which allows trained local law enforcement officers to perform immigration functions.

The investigation also concluded that ACSO engaged in the following discriminatory policing activities:

  • ACSO deputies target Latino drivers for traffic stops;
  • A study of ACSO’s traffic stops on three major county roadways found that deputies were between four and 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino drivers;
  • ACSO deputies routinely locate checkpoints just outside Latino neighborhoods, forcing residents to endure police checks when entering or leaving their communities;
  • ACSO practices at vehicle checkpoints often vary based on a driver’s ethnicity.   Deputies insist on examining identification of Latino drivers, while allowing drivers of other ethnicities to pass through without showing identification;
  • ACSO deputies arrest Latinos for minor traffic violations while issuing citations or warnings to non-Latinos for the same violations;
  • ACSO uses jail booking and detention practices, including practices related to immigration status checks, that discriminate against Latinos;
  • The sheriff and ACSO’s leadership explicitly instruct deputies to target Latinos with discriminatory traffic stops and other enforcement activities;
  • The sheriff and ACSO leadership foster a culture of bias by using anti-Latino epithets; and
  • ACSO engages in substandard reporting and monitoring practices that mask its discriminatory conduct.

Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, commented, “We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings by working collaboratively with ACSO, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if ACSO chooses a different course.”  The DOJ initially sought a court-enforceable written agreement to ensure long-term change at ACSO, but ACSO denied the truth of the findings, and the DOJ took legal action against Sheriff Johnson.  A DOJ-issued report on the investigation is published at the following link: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/September/12-crt-1125.html

Mere hours after the investigative report was released, officials with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said they planned to immediately terminate the federal 287(g) program in Alamance County.  This program extends limited federal immigration powers to local law enforcement officers, and allows them to conduct immigration checks and begin the deportation process for undocumented immigrants.  A 2009 report released by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the 287(g) program lacked sufficient oversight and control, which made it difficult for ICE to determine whether law enforcement agencies were using the program properly.

Response to the Investigation

On September 26, 2012, Attorney S. Chuck Kitchen responded to the investigation contentions on behalf of his client, Sheriff Johnson.  Kitchen wrote that the report was “short on facts and long on distortion and misrepresentations,” and stated, “the conclusion that the Sheriff or his deputies violated any laws of the United States is fatally flawed.”  The response also claimed the DOJ’s interviewing current deputies without benefit of counsel is a violation of Rule 4.2 of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as the rules of the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Kitchen denied discrimination against any persons, and thought any ‘negotiated settlement’ was neither necessary nor advisable.  Additionally, Kitchen alleged the entire investigation was part of an attempt to defeat Johnson at the polls and was initiated by Fairness Alamance, a liberal pro-immigration group.  The response is published at the following link: http://www.alamance-nc.com/fileadmin/alamance/Sheriffs%20Department/docs/Response_to_DOJ_9-26-12.pdf

The Complaint

The DOJ complaint against Johnson alleges the ACSO “at the direction of Defendant Johnson, intentionally discriminates against Latino persons in Alamance County by targeting Latinos for investigation, detention and arrest, and conducting unreasonable seizures and other unlawful law enforcement actions.”  The complaint also claims the discrimination is “the product of a culture of disregard for Latinos cultivated by Defendant Johnson and other ACSO leaders” as deputies allegedly understand that ACSO encourages their discriminatory conduct.

The complaint alleges that ACSO’s discriminatory conduct includes:

  • Targeting Latinos for traffic stops;
  • Stopping Latino drivers without reasonable suspicion;
  • Arresting Latinos for minor infractions while letting others go with a citation or warning;
  • Disproportionately locating vehicle checkpoints in Latino neighborhoods;
  • Stopping Latinos at checkpoints while letting others pass unhindered; and
  • Disproportionately referring Latinos for immigration investigations at the Alamance County Jail

One example of alleged discriminatory conduct from June or July of 2011 is described in the complaint: “while at a vehicle checkpoint, Defendant Johnson issued instructions to his subordinates to ‘go out there and get me some of those taco eaters,’ which his subordinates understood as a directive to target Latinos for arrest.”

The complaint claims that soon after entering in to the federal 287(g) program, the ACSO altered its booking procedures to target Latinos for immigration questioning, a practice that continued for at least five years.  Specifically, the complaint alleges that arrestees who physically appeared to be Latino were automatically sent to ICE, whereas arrestees who appear ‘American’ were not referred to ICE, even if they failed to present identification.

The prayer for relief requests that Johnson, his deputies, agents, and employees adopt and implement policies and procedures to remedy the alleged unlawful conduct, and that they refrain from engaging in any of the acts described in the complaint which formed the basis for the alleged unlawful conduct.  The complaint is published at the following link: http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/resources/55620121220953110360.pdf

Looking Ahead

The Alamance County Board of Commissioners has supported Sheriff Johnson’s fight against the DOJ allegations.  Several commissioners have stated they do not believe that the DOJ has any evidence against Johnson in the case, and some commissioners believe the lawsuit is a partisan attack.

Johnson is planning a press conference in February in response to the lawsuit.  Kitchen said the press conference is tentatively set for February 15, and ACSO spokesman Randy Jones said information presented at the press conference would include exhibits showing the claims against the department are inaccurate.


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About Jamie Richardson, Co-Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (4 Articles)
Jamie graduated from Campbell Law School in 2013 and received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. She served as an intern at the Durham County District Attorney's Office and she has previously served as an intern for the Wake County District Attorney's Office, the Honorable Paul Ridgeway in North Carolina Superior Court, and Powell Law Firm.
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