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Goldwater Institute: Arpaio’s crime clearance rate a sham

The Goldwater Institute renewed its criticism of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, this time accusing the agency of reporting faulty criminal investigation statistics to federal authorities.

In December, the public-policy group reported that Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s “misplaced priorities,” specifically his attention-grabbing crime sweeps targeting illegal immigrants, had led to rising crime rates, a glut of outstanding warrants and increased response times to crimes reported in unincorporated jurisdictions of Maricopa County.

Now, Goldwater Institute attorney Clint Bolick has targeted the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for what he says is improper clearing of criminal investigations that has led to inaccuracies in crime statistics reports to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

At a May 21 press conference held at the organization’s Phoenix office, Bolick was joined by attorney Thomas Loquvam and Abigail Brown, who says she was a victim of statutory rape by multiple suspects at a party in Maricopa County in 2001. Brown was 14 years old at the time of the encounter.

Bolick said Brown is an example of “serious malfeasance” in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which dropped the investigation and reported the matter “cleared” to federal authorities.

Under FBI protocol, law enforcement agencies can clear investigations when arrests are made or when they are determined “cleared by exception,” which requires officials to obtain the hallmarks of a criminal investigation: identifying a suspect, getting enough evidence to make and arrest and prosecute and being able to pinpoint a suspect’s location.

But, the cleared-by-exception standard is to be used only in rare circumstances, such as when identified suspects are dead, incarcerated in other facilities or when extradition is impossible, Bolick said.

Hours after the press conference, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office responded to the Goldwater Institute’s claims, stating that the FBI’s crime reporting program for local agencies is voluntary and is not intended to oversee “how law enforcement agencies clear cases.”

The office said it appears the clearing of Brown’s case fits within the agency’s own standards for “exceptionally cleared” cases, but more time will be needed to review the facts of the case.

Citing newspaper reports, Bolick said MCSO cleared 75 percent of its cases in 2006 by exception, while 25 percent were closed by arrest. Last year, 82 percent of cleared cases were by exception.

The attorney said he could not tell how the MCSO clearance rate compared with other agencies. However, he said, the office’s lack of clear reporting standards and separate record keeping for cases cleared by arrests and exception underscored the need for state law to implement uniform standards.

Right now, the FBI does not penalize agencies that fail to comply with its criteria. Bolick said a state law is needed to avert the “ticking time bomb” presented when law enforcement agencies can effectively declare crimes solved while perpetrators remain free.

“We cannot hold law enforcement agencies accountable for their performance when they can file any performance they want,” he said.

Brown’s case was declared cleared by exception by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which stopped the investigation after determining Brown waited seven months to report the encounter, could not identify a perpetrator, had consumed alcohol and engaged in consensual sex with another male at the party prior to the alleged attack, according to Bolick and an MCSO Case Status Clearing Report found on www.victimpower.org.

Brown said MCSO failed to make any real effort to find and view a videotape she said existed of her attack by a dozen young men.

Loquvam, her attorney, said the “anemic” investigation was terminated after a month, despite the fact a suspect was identified and several witnesses reported seeing the videotape at subsequent parties. The suspect, at the time, simply refused to return phone calls from the Sheriff’s Office, he said.

However, in May 2007, the MCSO reopened the investigation into Brown’s alleged attack at the urging of Loquvam and a Massachusetts-based law firm.

Loquvam said the during the second investigation, two suspects admitted to having sex with Brown during the 2001 party while they were cheered on by attending party goers.

The case was transferred to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for prosecution three months before the expiration of a seven-year statute of limitations. Loquvam said he and Brown were informed the case would not be prosecuted because the office felt a jury would be unwilling to convict the suspects for years-old attack knowing their penalty would be severe.

Brown, now a resident of Massachusetts, told reporters at the press conference that the 2001 attack was emotionally devastating and was well-known among her high school peers. She later dropped out of school.

“My life in high school became pretty much unbearable, so I ended up dropping out,” she said.

The Goldwater Institute is seeking to have the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office review the exceptional clearance practices of the Sheriff’s Office to ensure compliance with the FBI’s reporting criteria.

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