Claiming the federal agency failed to offer substantive proof that Johnson's office targeted Latinos during traffic stops and checkpoints in order to spur their deportation, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder, an appointee of President George W. Bush, issued his opinion late last week.
The Department of Justice has yet to indicate whether it will appeal the ruling, which would close a case that began in 2013 when federal investigators accused Johnson of engaging "in a pattern of discriminatory law enforcement activities directed against Latinos in Alamance County," a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
"Go out there and get me some of those taco eaters," Johnson was accused of exclaiming at a vehicle checkpoint in summer 2011.
During the case, the DOJ claimed its own data analysis found that Latino drivers were as much as 10 times more likely to be stopped by Alamance deputies along major county highways.
An Indy analysis in 2012 reported similar findings, discovering that Latino drivers were twice as likely as non-Latino drivers to be arrested during traffic stops in Alamance County. Immigration attorneys used the allegations to prompt federal officials to drop numerous deportation cases stemming from arrests by Johnson's deputies.
Numerous advocates claimed Johnson was enlisting his deputies to stop Latino motorists, directing them to arrest those drivers for offenses in which non-Latino drivers would not be arrested. Arrests are key because individuals cannot be processed through the immigration database without an arrest.
It's a long-running claim in Alamance County, where Johnson lobbied to start the controversial 287(g) program, a partnership with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that allows local law enforcement to act as immigration officers. Nevertheless, Johnson remains popular in the largely conservative county, where he ran for a fourth term unopposed last year.
The ACLU of N.C. issued an immediate condemnation of the ruling, calling it a "miscarriage of justice" and urging the DOJ to appeal the ruling.
"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 ACLU staff attorney Carolyna Caicedo Manrique in a statement.