Clad in a dark suit and a blue shirt, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson seems relaxed as he makes small talk with the security guards at the courthouse door.
"I appreciate what you do," he says to one guard. Minutes later, someone in his entourage mumbles something that makes the sheriff guffaw as he boards the elevator at the U.S. District Courthouse in Winston-Salem.
It was a rare light moment on Thursday. There was little time for levity the rest of the week, as U.S. Department of Justice attorneys painstakingly documented allegations of racial profiling and misconduct by the Alamance sheriff for District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder. To many, last week's testimony was a long time coming. For years, civil rights advocates in Alamance County have accused Johnson of targeting Latino residents in an effort to spur deportations.
"I think the government's put on a strong case. And I'm hoping that the Latino community in Alamance County is going to finally see justice," said Triangle immigration attorney Marty Rosenbluth. Rosenbluth helped to defend deportation defendants in Alamance, a rural county west of the Triangle.
DOJ officials filed a civil rights suit against the sheriff in December 2012, coming at the close of a multi-year investigation into Sheriff's Office practices. Prior to the suit, federal officials stripped Johnson's office of 287(g), a controversial partnership with federal immigration officials that allows local law enforcement to begin deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants.
The federal suit came weeks after an INDY analysis of traffic stop data determined Latino drivers were twice as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested during traffic stops by Johnson's deputies. According to the DOJ, Latinos are as much as 10 times more likely to be stopped for a traffic infraction in Alamance.
An arrest is key because, under 287(g), an individual's immigration status may only be checked following an arrest, although, as witnesses testified last week, Johnson enlisted his officers to check the status of numerous Latino residents who had not been arrested. Some, as one deputy testified Thursday, had simply applied for a gun permit.
DOJ officials want the judge to order a change in policies and procedures at Johnson's office, which rebuffed settlement offers prior to the suit. A spokesman for the Sheriff's Office declined to comment this week, but the sheriff has long denied any wrongdoing.
In a 2012 letter, Sheriff's Office attorney Chuck Kitchen accused the DOJ of basing its case on "newspaper articles, rumors, and gossip."
"The Alamance County Sheriff's Office does not discriminate against any persons, including Spanish-speaking individuals," Kitchen wrote.
Schroeder has given each side up to five days to present its case. It is not a jury trial, so Schroeder will make a decision from the bench.
Testimony last week included deputies who acknowledged members of Johnson's office, without rebuke, used racial slurs such as "wetback" when describing Latinos.
They also detailed how top officials in Johnson's office, including Johnson himself, called on 287(g)-trained deputies to run immigration checks on many non-arrested individuals, most or all of them appearing to have Latino names. Additionally, Susan Wortinger, a magistrate judge at the Alamance County Jail, testified that Alamance deputies began arresting more Latinos for minor offenses after Johnson took office in 2002. Based on the case DOJ officials are trying to make, it was part of a Johnson directive to arrest Latinos rather than ticket them, presumably to cause their deportation.
Wortinger also testified that at least one Alamance deputy was particularly known for targeting Latino drivers, even boasting to her of his "collection" of immigration papers he had apparently seized from Latino residents. Wortinger said she told that deputy's superiors about her concerns, but he was never formally disciplined.
Federal legal filings in the case present multiple instances of apparent racism in Johnson's office. "Go out there and catch me some Mexicans," Johnson allegedly told his deputies. The suit also quotes Johnson as labeling Latinos "taco eaters," while directing deputies to focus their efforts on predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Throughout last week's testimony, Johnson's attorneys indicated the fault lied with federal immigration officials, who knew about and approved of his tactics, specifically checking the immigration status of residents who had not been arrested.
Johnson's attorneys described the accusations against him as politically motivated attempts to unseat him, portraying Wortinger as a friend of the former Alamance sheriff defeated by Johnson. On Thursday, DOJ attorneys questioned Alamance Deputy Jeff Randleman about one case in which Johnson personally asked him to travel to Buncombe County to arrest a Latino man suspected of stealing the identity of an Alamance resident.
Buncombe authorities could have made the arrest, but, as Randleman testified, they did not have the 287(g) program in the county. Randleman added that the sheriff had never before asked him to leave the county to make an arrest. The case is expected to continue into next week in Winston-Salem.
Rosenbluth, the immigration rights attorney, said that while the DOJ case has tended thus far to focus on dismissed Sheriff's Office employees and friends of Johnson opponents, federal attorneys have presented an "overwhelming" volume of evidence against the sheriff.
"What needs to happen is that the sheriff's department needs to acknowledge that racial profiling is a problem," Rosenbluth said. "Since they refuse to do that through mediation, there's going to have to be federal government oversight."
This article appeared in print with the headline ""Go out there and catch me some Mexicans"."