PHOENIX (Reuters) - Investigators found 900 hours of videotaped traffic stops at the home of an Arizona sheriff’s deputy who committed suicide after his arrest on drug charges and are trying to determine if he was “shaking down” illegal immigrant drivers, court documents show.
Ramon “Charley” Armendariz was found dead by deputies from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department on May 8, one day after failing to pick up an electronic monitoring device he had been ordered to wear following his arrest.
During a search of his home a week earlier, investigators found the traffic stop videos, along with personal information of drivers with Hispanic surnames, according to documents unsealed in connection with a racial profiling case against the office run by controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ruled last year that Arpaio, who bills himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” violated the constitutional rights of Latino drivers as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration and ordered him to stop using race as a factor in law enforcement decisions.
The ruling came in a 2007 class-action lawsuit by Hispanic drivers that tested whether police could target unauthorized illegal immigrants without racially profiling U.S. citizens and legal residents of Hispanic origin.
Arpaio also faces an ongoing lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department accusing him of civil rights abuses.
According to the newly unsealed transcripts of a closed-door hearing earlier this month, Snow asked a sheriff’s official about the status of the investigation into Armendariz.
“(Is the investigator) investigating whether or not Deputy Armendariz may have been shaking down some illegal aliens?” the judge asked.
“That is part of our understanding. He very well could have,” Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan told the court, according to the transcript. “What’s mysterious to me is why we didn’t get any complaints from those people.”
Armendariz, who testified during the racial profiling trial, was arrested on drug charges May 1 after a nine-hour stand-off with police. He resigned the following day.
Sheriff’s investigators are probing the case and determining whether others besides Armendariz were involved in misconduct not previously reported, Sheridan told the court.
“I think it’s critical for (the sheriff’s office) ... not to go into the investigation with a pre-supposition about the outcome or a desired outcome but to approach that investigation with an open mind to where ever it may lead,” said plaintiffs attorney Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker