Criminal minds: racial profiling in Alamance County | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Criminal minds: racial profiling in Alamance County 

An Alamance County deputy stopped Sidonio and arrested him for driving without a license. He was scheduled to be deported, but the charge and the deportation order were later dropped after his attorney questioned the handling of the arrest.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

An Alamance County deputy stopped Sidonio and arrested him for driving without a license. He was scheduled to be deported, but the charge and the deportation order were later dropped after his attorney questioned the handling of the arrest.

In the lobby of the Alamance County Sheriff's Office, a painting of stonefaced deputies from the Wild West hangs on the wall. Pass into the office of Sheriff Terry Johnson, a barrel-chested law enforcement "lifer" with a reputation for tough talk and tougher enforcement of immigration laws, and you'll find a bookshelf lined with dozens of family photos. In public, Johnson has two personas: a soft-hearted family guy whose tone turns sentimental when he talks about patriotism, and a brash lawman who despises political correctness.

"I hate politics," he grumbles. "It's sickening to have to be elected and go out and ask for votes."

Johnson's views on illegal immigration have earned him enemies and allies. He has enough allies that he crushed his opponent in a 2010 bid for a third term, even as foes denounced him as at best, an overzealous lawman, and at worst, a thinly veiled racist.

Now his views, his leadership and his deputies' actions have attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is investigating the Alamance County Sheriff's Office over allegations that it targets Latinos in traffic stops and checkpoints. The data supports the concerns: Compiled and analyzed by the Indy, traffic stop records show that Latino drivers are twice as likely as non-Latinos to face arrest during traffic stops by Alamance County deputies.

It's not just the data that is troubling. In September, Johnson, his chief deputy, the training director and a reserve deputy plan to attend a training session in Texas sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The organization is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for its incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The county will spend $3,200 in federal drug forfeiture money for sheriff's employees to attend the seminar, Alamance County Sheriff's Office spokesman Randy Jones said.

According to the SPLC's website, FAIR founder John Tanton has publicly bemoaned the loss of white power in the U.S. and called for policies that maintain a white majority in the country.

FAIR also helped draft an Arizona measure that expanded police power over undocumented immigrants, according to The New York Times. And Tanton formed the group U.S. English, which pushed for legislation requiring the government to conduct business in only English.

Jones told the Indy that FAIR's sponsorship role is minor. He suggested the group would pay for drinks, but drug trafficking experts in the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition (TBSC) would conduct the training.

However, TBSC Executive Director Donald Reay said his organization has been involved in previous California sessions, but an independent group named Border School will run the September training with FAIR footing the bill. Reay said his group's logo was initially used for the seminar without his permission.

Jones said he is unaware of FAIR's controversial positions, but added the organization's "hate group" label would not stop Alamance deputies from attending.

"This is like saying I'm not going to watch the Super Bowl because I don't like alcohol and Budweiser is a sponsor," Jones said. "Budweiser isn't playing the game."

Such is the controversy surrounding Johnson, a former State Bureau of Investigations agent who has made a name for himself as a crusader on illegal immigration. He once rounded up dozens of Hispanics at a state Division of Motor Vehicles office for using fake documents to obtain licenses.

He pledged a door-to-door campaign to root out illegal Hispanic voters prior to the 2004 presidential election, and he offered a stinging appraisal of Mexican culture in a 2007 News & Observer profile.

"Their values are a lot different, their morals, than what we have here," Johnson told the N&O reporter. "In Mexico, there's nothing wrong with having sex with a 12-,13-year-old girl ... They do a lot of drinking down in Mexico."

Under Johnson's watch, Alamance became the second county in North Carolina to employ 287(g), a federal program that extends immigration powers to local law enforcement. Six county sheriff's offices—Wake, Mecklenburg, Henderson, Gaston, Cabarrus and Alamance—and one city police department—Durham—use a form of 287(g).

Alamance's detention system allows authorities to run suspected undocumented immigrants through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database after booking them in county jail. At that point, their deportation is turned over to federal immigration officials.

This is his job, Johnson says. Drug cartels manned by undocumented immigrants have zeroed in on Alamance County, with its interstate location making it a prime drug trafficking point, he says.

Prior to 287(g), local police were hamstrung when it came to reining in undocumented immigrants, authorities say. Its implementation in Alamance has paid off, Johnson says, pointing to declining crime figures, although skeptics say there is no empirical evidence linking immigration to rising crime.

Johnson says the sheriff's office has had little contact with DOJ officials since the investigation began more than two years ago. The parties are deadlocked in a lawsuit over a DOJ demand to interview sheriff's personnel without the presence of Alamance County Attorney Clyde Albright.

DOJ officials did not respond to the Indy's request for comment. Johnson and Jones say the investigation is a back-door manipulation by the sheriff's foes to oust him from office and gut 287(g).

"The only people we profile is the criminal element," Johnson says proudly.

"In the commission of a crime," Jones chimes in.

"In the commission of a crime," Johnson says.

Meet Sidonio.

Eight years ago, the Guatemala-born man crossed a desert for three days and two nights to enter America. He doesn't remember the name of the desert, although chances are he's talking about the Sonoran or the Chihuahuan, treacherous expanses of boiled sand traversed by scores of undocumented immigrants crossing the border into the Southern U.S.

Sidonio came here for work. Through an interpreter, he explains that employment is difficult to find in Guatemala, but in America, he's landed odd jobs as a carpenter, construction worker, cleaner, plumber and landscaper.

In a meeting at Durham's El Centro Hispano—a Latino community center—Sidonio is clean-cut, wearing a gray dress shirt and blue jeans. He is unfailingly polite and soft-spoken. He says he has no criminal record in the States. He avoids conflict when he can, and—for the most part—he is treated well by Americans.

That changed for Sidonio last August, when he was pulled over by an Alamance County deputy as he commuted to work. Authorities' records do not list any traffic violations committed by Sidonio, his attorney points out, but Sidonio was arrested on the charge of driving without a license when he could produce only a passport as identification.

"I was not speeding. I followed the traffic rules," Sidonio says.

Sidonio was held in an Alamance County jail for more than three weeks and flagged for deportation.

Last year, when ICE Director John Morton urged local law enforcement leaders to use "prosecutorial discretion," it was intended to refocus the hunt on the violent criminals and the powerful drug cartels infiltrating American communities.

Sidonio does not fit those descriptions. Neither does Jessica, an Alamance County motel maid whose run-in with local deputies last July spurred her deportation proceedings.

Jessica, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and a mother of four, crossed the border in 1998. She was stopped by an Alamance deputy after meeting her boyfriend, Jose, at a Graham gas station. Through an interpreter, Jessica said deputies tailed Jose—an undocumented roofer—as he drove to meet her at the gas station, but deputies did not make a traffic stop until the couple left the station with Jessica at the wheel.

Jessica said she committed no traffic violation, but deputies stopped her anyway. They charged Jose—a passenger—with driving while impaired and driving without a license. Deputies said Jose had been driving erratically as he traveled to the station.

Jessica was booked for driving without a license and resisting arrest. She flatly denies the latter charge. She said she pleaded with deputies to let her go home to her children. Instead, the deputies mocked her for failing to produce proper identification, she said.

"I didn't do anything wrong," she said. "I didn't do anything wrong."

Authorities dropped the charges and deportation proceedings against Sidonio, Jessica and Jose after Durham attorney Marty Rosenbluth, executive director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project, challenged Alamance deputies' handling of their arrests. Rosenbluth calls Jessica and Jose's arrests one of the more "blatant" cases of police wrongdoing that he's seen.

Sidonio and Jose continue to live in the region, but Jessica is moving from Alamance County.

"They know my truck," she said. "I'm really fearful of driving because I'm afraid they'll arrest me for no reason."

Based on an Indy analysis of N.C. Department of Justice traffic stop data from January 2009 to June 2012, it is clear that Latino drivers stopped in Alamance County are likely to be treated differently than those stopped elsewhere.

In that time, Alamance County logged 1,450 stops on Latino drivers. Of those stops, 14 percent of Latino drivers were arrested, more than double the 6.2 percent of non-Latinos arrested in traffic stops in the county. Arrests are key because drivers are processed for deportation in 287(g) counties such as Alamance when they are jailed.

Compare the Latino arrest rates with those in other counties: Durham, 4.3 percent; Wake, 2.5 percent; Orange, 0.8 percent; Chatham, 5.7 percent, Lee, 3.1 percent.

Non-Latino drivers in Alamance were roughly twice as likely as their Latino counterparts to receive a verbal or written warning, or to drive off with no action taken.

Meanwhile, 55 percent of Latinos were issued citations, compared to 31 percent of non-Latino drivers.

It could be even worse for Latinos, according to a controversial 2009 report by an Elon University professor. That report concludes Alamance deputies pulled over more than twice as many Latinos as they reported, based on an analysis of four years of court data.

Alamance chief law enforcement officials say the traffic stop data actually disproves the claims of racial bias. With the number of Latinos in the county, Alamance deputies would be stopping many more Hispanic motorists if they were targeting the immigrant community, Johnson said.

"If I wanted to profile, I could probably have stopped five people on my way to work this morning," he said.

Beyond the data, though, are the people. There have been media reports of five immigrants booked in August 2008 and later deported for fishing without a license on the Haw River. Three Hispanic children were stranded on the shoulder of busy I-85 for eight hours after an Alamance deputy arrested their mother for a traffic violation.

Rosenbluth points out these kinds of stories are not unique to Alamance. In Wake, a woman was deported after phoning 911 to report domestic abuse, he said. He also says a man was deported after his vehicle was rear-ended by a drunk driver.

And then there are Latinos like Sidonio and Jessica, drivers plucked from the roadways for minor traffic offenses such as driving without a license.

These kinds of worries prompted Rosenbluth, who once focused his studies on international human rights in the Middle East, to turn his attention to North Carolina.

"It was one of the more serious civil rights offenses going on," he said. "And to me, the idea that you can go out at night for a quart of milk and end up in Mexico without being able to say goodbye to your kids is crazy."

Rosenbluth said law enforcement officials in many locales, but particularly in Alamance, are flouting ICE directives by using minor traffic citations to speed the deportation process.

"What if they pulled me over and I didn't have my license?" Rosenbluth said. "You can bet your bottom dollar they're not going to handcuff me, take me down to the station and fingerprint me. Very clearly, they're doing this to check immigration status."

According to a 2010 study by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers Hannah Gill and Mai Thi Nguyen, nearly a third of the defendants tabbed for deportation in North Carolina jails had been booked on traffic violations. But the rate was 41 percent in Alamance County.

Gill, an Alamance native who has sharply criticized Johnson's tactics, said the 287(g) program has taken a toll on the local Latino community.

"There's definitely fear here," she said. "Fear of reporting crimes, fear of interacting in any way with police."

According to Gill, the problem extends beyond Johnson and into Alamance's top county officials. "It's not just about getting rid of the illegals," she said. "There has been a real agenda to not have immigration in the county."

Johnson is a popular but polarizing figure in a region bathed in old-school Southern charm. Roads in downtown Graham converge in a traffic circle at the county's historic courthouse. An old-timey soda shop sits kitty-corner to the courthouse.

Antiquated it may seem, but times have changed in Alamance County. Decades ago, Alamance was a largely white, rural county. Today, it is home to a population exceeding 150,000. Law enforcement sources estimate the surging Latino community now approaches 30,000, although an exact count, for obvious reasons, is difficult. The U.S. Census estimates the number to be 17,475, or 11.4 percent of the county's population.

(Durham County's Latino population is 36,907, or 13.5 percent; Wake's is 92,978, or 10 percent; Orange is 10,996, or 8.1 percent.)

In person, Johnson is polite but irascible about the DOJ inquiry, a battle he refers to as "fighting a hidden demon."

Alamance chiefs say DOJ investigators have failed to produce a single account of wrongdoing by local deputies.

"They won't tell us what we did wrong," Johnson says. "If I've got a deputy doing something wrong, how can I correct it if you won't tell me what it is?"

Local power is important to Johnson, who often espouses the benefits of "proactive" policing in immigration enforcement. At a 2009 national security conference in Rock Hill, S.C., Johnson lambasted undocumented immigrants, claiming they drive up crime, drain American tax revenues and steal jobs.

Johnson blasted Washington, D.C., politicians for failing to remedy the immigration problem, suggesting it will be left to local police to get the job done.

"I'm going to say this and it's probably going to step on some people's toes," he said. "Terry Johnson, sheriff of Alamance County, has never known Washington, D.C., to solve any problems for Alamance County. I have to do that as sheriff."

He believes his work is paying off in declining crime figures. His aggressive crackdown has forced criminal undocumented immigrants out of Alamance and into neighboring counties, he says.

Data from 2009 to 2012 show that Alamance is processing fewer immigrants. The numbers have decreased from 384 immigrants in the 2009 fiscal year to 241 so far in 2012, according to ICE spokesman Vincent Picard. The downward trend mirrors other 287(g) counties such as Wake, Gaston and Henderson.

Meanwhile, Johnson said, the high Latino arrest rate during traffic stops is likely the result of his policies. Deputies should arrest drivers who cannot provide identification, Johnson said. Other law enforcement agencies may not hold the same policy, he said, but if an Alamance deputy cannot identify the driver, an arrest is made.

As for the checkpoints, Johnson says his deputies erect them all over the county, but checkpoint locations are driven by results. "If you go into a pond and you catch a bunch of fish, you're going to come back," he says.

Johnson insists Latinos shouldn't fear his office if they abide by the laws. Break the law and his deputies will find you, he says.

"I know we have done nothing wrong," he says. "They're not going to find anything wrong here."

Now that his deportation and criminal charges in Alamance have been dropped, Sidonio says he has a second chance to remain in the U.S. and pursue legal citizenship and employment.

He says he has been questioned by DOJ investigators regarding his experience with Alamance deputies, but he declines to discuss the details. "It's confidential," he says.

His destiny, he says, is unknown, but he's more likely to pursue it in Durham County, not Alamance County.

His message for Alamance law enforcement? "Pursue the criminals," he says. "[Police] are grabbing innocents off the street."

That fear of being targeted compelled Jessica to move to Iowa. She says she wanted to stay in Alamance, but her experience with law enforcement has changed her.

She said she no longer trusts the police. At one point, she stopped working because she feared leaving her home. The sound of sirens frightened her. She was convinced they were for her.

She doesn't blame all law enforcement. Most, she says, are doing their jobs. Most, but not all.

"I just want the police to not be racist," she says. "Just realize we're all people."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Criminal minds."

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