Judge Dismisses DOJ Case Against Johnson, Finds No Evidence of Unconstitutional Practices

Michael D. Abernethy, Times-News, August 7, 2015

Five days shy of a year since the case was tried, a federal judge Friday found for Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and ruled that the U.S. Department of Justice failed to show a pattern or practice of racial profiling against Latinos.

U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder denied the U.S. government’s claims that Johnson and Alamance County deputies engaged in unconstitutional law enforcement. The judge made the conclusion accompanied by a 250-page assessment of the testimony and evidence in the trial Aug. 12-22, 2014 in Winston-Salem.

“With no evidence that any individual was unconstitutionally deprived of his or her rights under the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments, the Government’s case rested largely on vague, isolated statements attributed to Sheriff Johnson and on statistical analyses,” Schroeder said. “In the context of the significant law enforcement challenges facing (the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office), the government’s evidence falls short.”

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Karlene “Honey” Turrentine, who represented Johnson along with co-counsel Chuck Kitchen–unavailable Friday–was elated by the ruling.

“When that trial concluded . . . we knew that the United States did not prove its case,” Turrentine said. “As the government seeks to go after law enforcement and the nation’s confidence in law enforcement is being diminished based on things going on around the country, this is wonderful news, and it should be touted everywhere. There are agencies following law and Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson is leading one of those agencies.

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The ruling ends years of speculation and litigation by the DOJ, which first began investigating the department in 2010 after it received complaints from residents and groups here.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina released a statement Friday afternoon rejecting the ruling and urging the DOJ to appeal the case.

“Today’s decision flies in the face of a mountain of evidence that Sheriff Johnson and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office engaged in discriminatory policing,” said Carolyna Caicedo Manrique, ACLU-NC staff attorney. “During the trial, the Department of Justice presented expert testimony that Latinos in Alamance County were seven times more likely to be stopped and cited than non-Latinos in the community. This profiling was no accident. According to witnesses, Sheriff Johnson repeatedly and explicitly instructed his deputies to target Latinos, at one point even telling them to ‘go get me some Mexicans.’”

Schroeder addressed each of the ACLU’s points at length in his assessment of the case.

He found as matters of fact that the statistical analyses proffered by the DOJ were unpersuasive and in instances scientifically unsound. Schroeder also doubted that Johnson ever made the remarks he was alleged to have said, given that no one was able to give context for the statements and that Latino officers in the department never made complaints of racial profiling.

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Not everything Schroeder said about the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office was glowing.

He admonished officers who circulated racist emails and jokes, and said epithets and slurs used by some officers were “abhorrent.” The judge especially found disturbing the circulation of a computer game in which players shot at Latino caricatures crossing the U.S. border. The behavior “should cease immediately,” Schroeder said.

“While this evidence falls short of showing a Fourteenth Amendment violation, the court would nevertheless be remiss if it failed to address the troubling nature of some of the evidence at trial,” Schroeder said. “. . . The evidence at trial highlighted inconsistencies in ACSO’s discipline. Some conduct violating ACSO’s policies was disciplined, while other conduct was not. A competent, efficient, and professional functioning law enforcement organization requires consistent, regular discipline.”

He did credit the department for implementing Internet and email screening.

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