Deputies raid county building to take control of computers

MARICOPA SHERIFFS CAR(AZ CENTRAL)   Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies on Wednesday stormed into a county building, seized control of a computer system and threatened to arrest county employees if they tried to stop them, according to county officials.

County management responded by asking a Maricopa County Superior Court judge for a temporary restraining order against the Sheriff’s Office.

The system, which provides access to law-enforcement databases, is the subject of a lawsuit between the Sheriff’s Office and the Board of Supervisors.

It links county computers to Department of Public Safety databases, which store criminal background information. But it also is a server and e-mail platform for several county agencies, including the Sheriff’s and County Attorney’s offices and the Superior Court.

Its management is the subject of a 2003 interagency agreement. But in light of recent layoffs of system operators due to budget cuts and squabbles among the agencies, the Sheriff’s Office felt that sensitive data that should be the sole domain of law enforcement had become too available to the system’s civilian administrators, who work for County Manager David Smith and the supervisors.

In April, the Sheriff’s Office filed a lawsuit demanding control of the system, and the suit is working its way through court.

Nonetheless, Wednesday morning, deputies took control of the computers, housed at Sixth Avenue and Madison Street, and told the staff to leave under threat of arrest. Then, according to Wade Swanson, an attorney for the supervisors, sheriff’s personnel began changing passwords and locked down the computer rooms.

A spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office referred questions to the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office refused to comment.

Swanson said that the deputies’ “aggressive action” of seizing the system is “unsupportable, unwarranted and unprecedented.”

“The sheriff did not receive permission from – or give notice to – any other elected official or stakeholder agency before barging in with armed officers and demanding that he be given exclusive control,” he said.

County Manager Smith called the action “the lowest common denominator of a thug, which is the use of force. (Sheriff Joe Arpaio) has no authority in law – or business practice – to do this. He just decided . . . to send in deputies and take over and kick the staff out. It’s a misappropriation of public assets.”

Just as the Sheriff’s Office is concerned about civilians’ access to records, county management is concerned the Sheriff’s Office now has access to information from other county agencies it is investigating, such as the Superior Court. State appellate courts have rebuffed Arpaio’s attempts to obtain privileged court e-mails, which would be accessible through the system. Superior Court Judge Joseph Heilman has scheduled a hearing for today regarding the restraining order.

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