by Laura Abel, Deputy Director, National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School
Recently the Justice Department’s groundbreaking civil rights work received a boost when a federal district court allowed it to proceed with its civil rights case against the Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio. The Justice Department’s suit alleges that the Sheriff is harming the Latino community in a dozen mean-spirited and unlawful ways, including: race-based stops, searches and arrests; the denial of health care and other services in the county jail for prisoners with limited proficiency in English; and retaliation against people who dare to complain. The Department’s complaint provides some insight into the human cost. For example, it tells the story of four Latino men, whose car was stopped even though they had not violated any traffic laws: the officers “ordered the men out of the car, zip-tied them, and made them sit on the curb for an hour before releasing all of them.” And it explains that in the county jail, officers “routinely make announcements only in English” about such fundamental things as the “time … to go outdoors, receive clothing, or eat.”
Investigations into serious civil rights abuses have been one of the hallmarks of Attorney General Eric Holder’s tenure. The Justice Department’s investigations into language access problems in state courts and law enforcement agencies around the country have been particularly successful, leading to major improvements in many states. As a result of civil rights investigations in Colorado and Rhode Island, for instance, the courts in both states agreed to provide interpreters for limited English proficient individuals in all civil cases.