WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina — In the opening day of a case accusing a North Carolina sheriff of racial profiling, two retired supervising deputies testified Tuesday that their former boss told officers to take Hispanic motorists to jail over traffic violations, rather than issuing citations.
The U.S. Justice Department has accused Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson of using his office to violate the Constitution's promise of equal protection of law and barring unreasonable searches. U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder is hearing the case without a jury.
Retired lieutenants Ken Evans and Stephen Perry testified that during a traffic checkpoint in 2007 or 2008, Johnson demanded that Latino drivers be locked up after being pulled over. The checkpoint was set up during morning rush hour outside a mobile home park primarily populated by Hispanic renters, according to the testimony.
Despite fearing that Johnson could fire him, Evans said, he agreed before his 2012 retirement to speak to Justice Department investigators. Evans said he worried the sheriff's priorities would be adopted by young law officers.
"I was concerned about the influence he had on their young careers," Evans said. "If they were doing it, it would be terrible for them and the county."
The government said a Justice Department investigation found that Alamance County deputies routinely targeted Latinos for traffic stops. A statistical study commissioned by the DOJ found that the county's Hispanic drivers were as much as 10 times more likely to be stopped by a sheriff's deputy for committing a traffic infraction than a non-Latino driver, the government said.
Defense attorney S.C. Kitchen said the case will hinge on the testimony of witnesses, including several current and former members of Johnson's department. The government won't be able to prove a clear, intentional pattern of discrimination against Latinos because it didn't exist, Kitchen said.
"There has been no racial or ethnic profiling," he said.
Burlington resident Jose Luis Arzola testified that during one 2010 traffic stop by an Alamance County deputy, he was asked for his "papers." But after he told the deputy that documents showing he was a legal immigrant to the U.S. were stored at home, his driver's license was soon returned and he was released without a ticket. Arzola said he also suffered two home burglaries and praised deputies for collecting fingerprints and scouring the residence for clues.
"I was treated excellently," he said.
Evans said under cross-examination that he was demoted from chief deputy to a lieutenant when Johnson took office in 2002 and that his nephew and the woman he later married were fired. Evans said he was happy to keep his job during the transition despite losing about 10 percent of his salary.
Johnson, a Republican, is running unopposed for re-election to a fourth four-year term in November. Testimony from a list of dozens of potential witnesses is expected to continue into next week.
The Justice Department said Johnson targeted Latinos to boost deportations after his agency in 2007 began participating in the federal 287(g) program, which trained local law enforcement officers to perform immigration checks. Hispanics arrested in the county were then automatically referred to investigators at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for potential deportation. ICE cut short its agreement with Alamance County in 2012.
The government also is asking the judge to penalize Johnson for allowing the destruction of an audio recording. Witnesses described in pre-trial interviews that the recording of the department's radio traffic would have captured Johnson telling officers at a checkpoint to take any Hispanics they find to jail, Justice Department lawyers said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio