The U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil rights complaint against the North Carolina “taco” sheriff the agency accuses of routinely discriminating against Latinos.

The sheriff, who called Latinos “taco eaters,” is accused of systematically racially profiling Latinos.

The suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court follows a two-year investigation during which federal authorities concluded Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson and his deputies made unwarranted arrests with the goal of maximizing deportations.

The discriminatory conduct we observed is deeply rooted in a culture that begins with Sheriff Johnson and permeates the entire agency

- Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez

Federal officials say Johnson violated the constitutional rights of numerous U.S. citizens by illegally targeting and detaining Latinos without probable cause. The complaint also alleges Johnson sought to obstruct the federal investigation by withholding documents and falsifying records.

Johnson is a Republican first elected in 2002. He says the probe is politically motivated. Johnson's department has already been suspended from a program to screen the immigration status of jail inmates.

 In an 11-page report issued earlier this year, the federal agency said Alamance County Johnson and his deputies violated the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens and legal residents by illegally targeting, stopping, detaining and arresting Latinos without probable cause.

ACSO deputies targeted Latino drivers for traffic stops, used jail booking and detention practices as immigration status checks, practiced vehicle checkpoints that often vary based on a driver's ethnicity, and held routine checkpoints just outside Latino neighborhoods the report said.

The agency also said that Johnson obstructed the federal investigation launched in 2010 by withholding requested documents and falsifying records. Federal investigators say members of the department also feared retaliation if they cooperated.

According to the federal report, Johnson referred to Latinos as "taco eaters" prone to excessive drinking, drug dealing and other unsavory behavior. He ordered special roadblocks in neighborhoods were Latinos live, during which those with brown skin were stopped while whites were waved through.

Johnson also ordered his deputies to arrest motorists who appeared Latino — even for minor traffic infractions — while letting white drivers off with warnings, according to the report. His deputies, in turn, were as much as 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latinos, according the federal review of the department's traffic stop records. Hispanics make up only 11 percent of the county's population.

Alamance County lies about an hour's drive northwest of Raleigh and has around 150,000 residents, according to U.S. Census figures.

"If you stop a Mexican, don't write a citation, arrest him," the sheriff is quoted as telling supervisors within his department, according to the report.

In public statements, the sheriff credited his crackdown with decreasing the population of Latinos.

"Their values are a lot different — their morals — than what we have here," Johnson was quoted as saying in a 2007 newspaper article cited in the federal report. "In Mexico, there's nothing wrong with having sex with a 12- or 13-year-old girl."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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