ACLU wants feds to investigate sheriff – again

Some allegations were part of DOJ lawsuit
that federal judge threw out in 2015

The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to reconsider a detention arrangement it has with Alamance County’s sheriff based on an alleged “pattern of civil rights violations” that supposedly dates back more than a decade.

“Everything in there is a false allegation and a false narrative. “They’re just trying to get ICE to yank the contract and keep us from supporting ICE.” – Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

On April 14, Naureen Shah, a senior legislative council from the ACLU’s New York City headquarters, sent a formal complaint to Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties about this ongoing arrangement with sheriff Terry Johnson, which enables the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to lease bed space for its detainees in Alamance County’s jail.

Shah, who is joined by two North Carolina-based co-authors in her complaint, contends that this contractual agreement undermines Homeland Security’s stated commitment to “public safety” by fostering “a climate of fear and anxiety for immigrants, their loved ones, and communities of color.”

The ACLU’s complaint goes on to suggest that the federal agency investigate the sheriff’s office over claims of discriminatory policing, which had previously prompted the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch a failed court action against Johnson in 2012. The organization also alludes to a “broader and continuing pattern of civil rights violations” that goes on “to this day,” and it further excoriates the sheriff’s office over a perceived “lack of accountability and transparency with local stakeholders,” such as the N.C. Justice Center – whose staff attorney is one of Shah’s fellow signatories.

Johnson, for his part, contests the ACLU’s allegations, which he insists are just as flimsy as the DOJ’s lawsuit, which a federal judge ultimately tossed out in 2015.

“Everything in there is a false allegation and a false narrative,” he said in an interview with The Alamance News. “They’re just trying to get ICE to yank the contract and keep us from supporting ICE.”

The ACLU’s complaint against Johnson comes just over a decade since a special section of the U.S. Justice Department took legal action against the sheriff in light of concerns over an earlier arrangement with ICE that had allowed local sheriff’s deputies to handle certain aspects of immigration enforcement.

As a prelude to its lawsuit in December of 2012, the Justice Department convinced Homeland Security to sever its ties with the office of Alamance County’s sheriff. In the meantime, the DOJ’s lawyers compiled a case that accused Johnson and his deputies of deliberately targeting Latino drivers for traffic stops and arrests in order to run them through an immigration unit that ICE had set up in Alamance County’s jail.

The DOJ’s civil case against the sheriff was eventually dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas E. Schroeder in 2015 – roughly a year after the sheriff and federal adversaries had squared off in a two-week trial in federal court. In his 249-page ruling, Schroeder asserted that the Justice Department had offered “no evidence that any individual was unconstitutionally deprived of his or her rights” by the sheriff’s office.

“The government’s case rested largely on vague, isolated statements attributed to sheriff Johnson and on statistical analyses,” the judge went on to state. “Yet, not a single person testified that any ACSO employee carried out any alleged improper directive or otherwise violated any individual’s constitutional rights….[and] the statistical analyses similarly failed to constitute reliable and persuasive proof of the claims under applicable legal standards.”
Schroeder nevertheless scolded the sheriff’s office over a few of the more credible allegations that had come up at trial – particularly with respect to the conduct of specific detention officers and deputies under Johnson’s command.

Despite the dismissal of its court action, the Justice Department didn’t finally abandon its crusade against Johnson until the two parties reached an out-of-court settlement in 2016.

Then in 2020, the sheriff’s office reestablished its working relationship with ICE – albeit on a more limited level that included no direct role in immigration enforcement for its deputies.
In her letter to Homeland Security, Shah makes frequent allusions to the largely-discredited claims that the Justice Department had lodged against Johnson in 2012. The ACLU’s senior legislative counsel goes on to assert that the sheriff’s office continues to practice the same “pattern of discriminatory policing and culture of discrimination identified by the Justice Department…with sheriff Johnson still at the helm of the agency.”

The ACLU’s letter contends that the figures which Johnson’s own agency has compiled since 2018 suggest that its deputies have stopped black and Latino drivers in higher proportion than their share of Alamance County’s population would warrant. In 2020, an in-depth review by The Alamance News confirmed this discrepancy in the case of black motorists stopped by local sheriff’s deputies – according to figures that the sheriff’s office had previously sent to the SBI. The newspaper nevertheless found that the proportion of black people stopped to be even higher for other area agencies and across the state as a whole.

[Story continues below.]

For more on the statistical analysis of Alamance County traffic stops, see original story from Dec. 2020:

The ACLU’s missive goes on to present several anecdotal accounts that an advocacy group called Siembra NC had accumulated from local Latinos about their alleged encounters with Johnson’s subordinates.

“Many community members have told Siembra NC that sheriff’s deputies disregarded their lawful status and treated them as if they were undocumented based on their perceived race and national origin,” the missive continues. “One man, a resident of Alamance County for 16 years and [a] father of three kids, told Siembra NC that sheriff’s deputies pressured him to sign a voluntary departure order ‘claiming it is faster for everyone’ even though he had legal status.”

The ACLU’s letter also dings Johnson for his agency’s supposed actions during recent mass demonstrations, particularly the marches and rallies that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

On one occasion, the ACLU contends that the sheriff’s office allowed counter demonstrators to repeatedly interrupt a “Black Lives Matter” rally by clanging a 400-pound bell that used to be located in Graham’s Sesquicentennial Park. The advocacy group neglects to mention that the park, as well as the bell it used to contain, are situated within the jurisdiction of Graham’s municipal police department. The ACLU also blames the sheriff for the law enforcement response to a voting rights march in the fall of 2020 that devolved into chaos after Graham police officers discharged pepper spray into the midst of a crowd of demonstrators.

In addition to these seemingly misdirected complaints against the sheriff’s office, the ACLU also takes issue with the alleged mistreatment of inmates in Alamance County’s jail.
The advocacy group recalls that, a year ago, ICE issued a news release that included Alamance County’s jail among a roster of local detention facilities that the agency was reconsidering using for its own detainees. The actual news release had merely mentioned in passing that Alamance County had no outdoor recreation facilities for inmates – as a mere footnote to some much graver concerns about other facilities outside of North Carolina.

Although ICE has continued to patronize Alamance County’s jail in the wake of this news release, the ACLU insists that the federal agency has more than enough reason to take its business elsewhere.

The advocacy group goes on to present a litany of complaints that former inmates have filed about overcrowding, safety hazards, medical neglect, and even allegations of physical abuse.

It even blames the sheriff for the recent deaths of several inmates who overdosed on smuggled narcotics, while failing to mention the sheriff’s subsequent investment in screening procedures to prevent similar incidents from taking place in the future.

In a final note, the ACLU accuses the sheriff’s office of withholding information from the North Carolina Justice Center when it requested records about inmate Demarius Wheeler, who died in the jail’s custody last August.

“The vast majority of the details surrounding his death were redacted,” the group’s letter contends. “[But] one of the few unredacted pieces of information from this request noted that there were gaps in the required officer rounds the evening before and [the] morning of Mr. Wheeler’s death.”

In the end, the ACLU insists that these incidents should warrant a formal investigation of the sheriff’s immigration-related activities and conduct a site visit to interview deputies, community leaders, and “impacted individuals” about their interactions with Johnson and his subordinates.

“Upon any significant findings of racial bias, discrimination, misconduct, or violation of the 287(g) [detention] agreement [with ICE],” the organization sums up in its communiqué, “we urge [the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties] to make a recommendation to ICE acting director Tae Johnson to terminate the agreement with the sheriff’s office.”

In response to the ACLU’s grievances, the sheriff insists that he has yet to hear the first word from Homeland Security about the organization’s concerns. In fact, Johnson acknowledged that he wasn’t even aware that a complaint had been lodged with the federal agency until he received a copy of the ACLU’s letter from a reporter in Charlotte.

Johnson added that ICE’s own inspectors have yet to find a single substantive violation during their numerous visits to Alamance County’s jail. He noted that even the jail’s lack of outdoor recreation facilities has proven no deal-breaker for the federal agency, which was well aware of this issue when it entered into its latest agreement with his office in 2020.

“ICE has always been satisfied with us,” the sheriff went on to assert, “and all I can say about the ACLU’s letter is that it’s full of false narratives just like [the DOJ’s lawsuit] was in 2012.”