Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, in response to rising civil liberties concerns over his newest program, has agreed to make it clear to drivers that there will be no consequences if they do not want to give up their fingerprints on traffic citations, he said Thursday.
Deputies will now be instructed to provide additional assurance to drivers at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, which spoke out strongly against the sheriff’s fingerprinting program that is meant to combat identity theft with stolen or falsified driver’s licenses.
"We’re pleased that the sheriff agreed to add a statement to motorists that there will be no consequences if they refuse to give a fingerprint, but that does not mean the program is a good one," said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU. "At minimum it is still a bad policy."
Arpaio launched the pilot program Feb. 3 in the West Valley.
More than 105 people have voluntarily provided their fingerprints during traffic stops since last week and 11 have refused, Arpaio said.
"That means 95 percent of these people love this program," Arpaio said. "I haven’t decided where to go with the program yet, but I’m very happy with the success story. It may be the East Valley."
Many of the fingerprints have yet to be cross-checked with the fingerprints of known criminals.
Arpaio said the department will see if it gets any hits on phony driver’s licenses before making further decisions about the program.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said the sheriff’s office and county attorney’s office have met to discuss the program. "As long as the fingerprints are voluntary, we don’t foresee any problems," Thomas said.
Besides providing legal consultation, special assistant county attorney Barnett Lotstein said, it is not the county attorney’s place to give an opinion on the program.
Civil rights advocates have raised concerns that drivers may get the impression that giving a fingerprint is mandatory.
"There’s an imbalance of power between the motorist and officer that I don’t think is ever truly voluntary," Eisenberg said. "I asked the sheriff to make sure that people are given an assurance and he agreed to do that and we are pleased, but that doesn’t mean we’ve reached an accord over the entire program."
Deputies will now be instructed to say the following while issuing a traffic citation: "Due to the increase in identity theft, I would like to ask you to place a thumbprint on the citation. This is voluntary and it is meant for identification purposes only. There will be no consequence if you refuse to volunteer a thumbprint on the citation."
Also Thursday, the District 22 Republican Committee passed a unanimous resolution declaring its objection to the program and called for all the data to be destroyed within six months.
- Tribune writer Kim Smith contributed to this report.