A Ninth Circuit panel on Monday rejected Maricopa County’s attempt to shirk liability for claims that former county sheriff and current Arizona U.S. Senate hopeful Joe Arpaio discriminated against Latinos, finding Sheriff Joe was a final policymaker of the county when he adopted discriminatory traffic-stop practices.
The county had urged the Ninth Circuit in May 2016 to reverse a lower court’s judgment to the extent it reflects any liability on the part of the county in a suit from the U.S. Department of Justice. But the panel said Monday that Arpaio’s policies were effectively the county’s, agreeing that Maricopa County is liable for the ensuing violations of the Civil Rights Act.
“When Arpaio adopted the racially discriminatory traffic-stop policies at issue, he acted as a final policymaker for the county,” the panel wrote. “Those policies were therefore the county’s own, and the district court correctly held the county liable for the violations.”
Monday’s decision comes in a case that stretches back to 2012, following an investigation that found reasonable cause the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Arpaio had engaged in unconstitutional conduct. The government’s complaint claimed that Latinos in Maricopa County are often stopped or arrested on the basis of race, color or national origin.
In June 2015, U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver granted partial summary judgment to the DOJ, saying that findings in a related class action known as Melendres v. Arpaio clearly showed the sheriff’s office had engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination.
Because the other court found that Arpaio and the MCSO’s policies solidified the use of race when it came to forming reasonable suspicion in law enforcement decisions, Judge Silver concluded that the federal government had already proven some of its claims and did not need to relitigate the matter.
The MCSO and Arpaio settled most of the remaining claims a month later, agreeing to provide better services to jail inmates who speak limited English. But Maricopa County appealed, arguing Arpaio is an independently elected sheriff for whom it could not be held responsible.
In the Melendres case, the Ninth Circuit ruled in March 2017 that Maricopa County owed $400,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses that class counsel spent fighting the appeal of its suit accusing the sheriff’s office of racial profiling.
And as of Monday’s opinion in the DOJ case, the Ninth Circuit once again found that the county was liable for its sheriff’s actions. In the opinion, the panel noted the findings in the Melendres case.
“Given the nature of the county’s involvement in the Melendres action, we conclude that the county is bound by the adverse findings rendered in that action,” the panel said.
U.S. Circuit Judges Ronald M. Gould, Richard C. Tallman and Paul J. Watford served on the panel.
Counsel for both parties did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The U.S. is represented in-house by attorneys Elizabeth Parr Hecker and Thomas E. Chandler and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gregory B. Friel.
Maricopa County is represented by Richard K. Walker of Walker & Peskind PLLC.
The case is U.S. v. County of Maricopa, case number 15-17558, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.