Joe Arpaio Guilty on Three Counts of Civil Contempt, Criminal Contempt Still Possible

Sheriff Joe Arpaio "deliberately violated court orders," according to a federal judge.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio "deliberately violated court orders," according to a federal judge.
Stephen Lemons

In a 162-page ruling issued, ominously, on Friday the 13th, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow found Sheriff Joe Arpaio guilty on three counts of civil contempt and left the door open to criminal prosecution.

Snow also found Arpaio's chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, guilty on two counts of civil contempt. Former executive chief Brian Sands and lieutenant Joe Sousa, who once headed Arpaio's Human Smuggling Unit, were each found guilty of one count of civil contempt.

The judge ruled that the defendants intentionally failed to implement a preliminary injunction in the case, that they ignored the plaintiffs' discovery requests, and that they "deliberately violated court orders" following the disclosure of additional evidence. In scathing language, he blasted Sheridan and Arpaio for making "multiple intentional misstatements of fact while under oath," for demonstrating "a persistent disregard for the orders of this Court," and for showing the "intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct."

After a detailed recitation of the evidence, Snow invited the parties to submit memoranda responding to the ruling. The judge set a hearing date of May 31 to "discuss the appropriate relief."

After that, Snow promised, his court will "enter any applicable orders and determine if it will refer any matters for criminal contempt."

Arpaio's contempt woes, and those of his subordinates, stem from their defiance of Snow's 2013 ruling in the landmark civil-rights case Melendres v. Arpaio, in which Latino plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the sheriff's office beginning in 2007, claiming a pattern of racial profiling.

About a year after a 2012 bench trial, Snow found the MCSO guilty of widespread racial profiling against Latinos and ordered a laundry list of reforms for the agency, to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor.

But Arpaio had been defiant of Snow's orders throughout the case — beginning, it was later learned, with Snow's first major ruling in Melendres, a preliminary injunction in December 2011 that forbade the MCSO from enforcing certain aspects of federal immigration law: specifically the civil enforcement of those laws, normally the purview of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing in 2008
U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing in 2008
CSPAN

Arpaio told numerous news outlets that nothing would change in his agency despite Snow's ruling. And the MCSO did nothing for 17 months to institute Snow's directive concerning immigration enforcement.

In today's ruling, Snow writes that Arpaio's motives were largely political.

Indeed, in 2012 Arpaio was in the re-election fight of his life against Democrat Paul Penzone, whose popularity threatened to bring an end to the sheriff's 20-year rule. Arpaio squeaked out a win, but only after emptying his campaign coffers of millions in donations.

To this point, Snow writes in his findings of fact that "Sheriff Arpaio knowingly ignored the Court’s order because he believed that his popularity resulted, at least in part, from his enforcement of immigration laws.... He also believed that it resulted in generous donations to his campaign."

Other instances of defiance by Arpaio and MCSO brass followed Snow's 2013 ruling in Melendres. The MCSO's command staff dragged its heels on obeying Snow's commands, and Chief Deputy Sheridan was caught on video in an address to roomful of deputies, calling Snow's decision in the case "ludicrous" and "crap."

The MCSO's deliberate disregard of Snow's 2011 injunction was revealed during an investigation into the May 2014 suicide of former MCSO Deputy Ramon Charley Armendariz.

Armendariz's house was found to be a trove of illicit drugs and property stolen from Latinos, some of them illegal immigrants: MCSO employees were improperly seizing driver's licenses, wallets, and handbags, using the residence as a stash house.

The investigation into the deputy's demise revealed that MCSO's upper echelons had allowed deputies to videotape their stops, using body cameras or dash cams. But the MCSO never turned over that evidence prior to the trial, as the court had required. MCSO's attorneys were also forced to admit to the court that Snow's 2011 order had not been implemented.

When Snow ordered that the MCSO help to discreetly round up the thousands of hours of relevant video recordings, Sheridan, with Arpaio's knowledge, instructed a subordinate to send out a mass email to deputies, ordering them to turn over the footage — thus tipping off anyone who might want to destroy the evidence instead.

The deception didn't stop there.

Snow found that Sheridan and Arpaio continued their willful dishonestly even during the contempt trial.

That included their testimony about the so-called Seattle investigation, in which Arpaio, convinced that Snow (along with the U.S. department of Justice, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and others) was out to ruin him, hired a Washington-based computer consultant to confirm his conspiracy theory.

When, during the trial, Snow directly asked Arpaio whether he had ever investigated him or a conspiracy involving him, Arpaio denied it; he later did the same in a sworn document. "These statements, made while Arpaio was under oath, constitute deliberate misstatements of fact made in bad faith," Snow writes.

Paul Charlton, former U.S. Attorney for Arizona, says the judge's language signals the possibility that Arpaio's case will be referred for criminal prosecution. In April of last year, Charlton notes, Sheridan and Arpaio admitted they were guilty of civil contempt in a bid to stop the trial.
Snow didn't bite.

"The only issue after you admitted to contempt is whether you did so intentionally," Charlton says. "And the first three pages [of Snow's ruling] have the word 'intentionally' about 10 times."

Criminal contempt of court is defined by federal statute as "willful disobedience" of the court's lawful orders and is punishable by up to six months in prison. A punishment for civil contempt would be coercive rather than punitive in nature, and might involve fines or other sanctions meant to ensure compliance.

"Judge Snow doesn't have the ability to try Joe Arpaio for criminal contempt," Charlton says. Instead, Snow can send the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office for prosecution, or, if the U.S. Attorney turns down the case, to a special prosecutor. Another judge then would be appointed, and Arpaio and his codefendants would have the right to a jury trial.

Snow does, however, have the power to impose civil penalties short of depriving Arpaio and the others of their liberty. He could order greater oversight by a court-appointed monitor already in place, perhaps depriving the sheriff of his authority over internal-affairs cases, which the judge found rife with favoritism and lax punishments. And he could order the defendants to pay hefty fines out of their own pockets.

In his ruling, Judge Snow paints a damning portrait of a law-enforcement agency where discipline is nonexistent for those close to Arpaio and his command staff, where internal-affairs investigations are fatally flawed, and where stroking the sheriff's ego drives department policy.

But the question remains: Will anything change while the 83-year-old Arpaio remains at the top of the MCSO?

Charlton suggests that justice might be on its way — albeit at its own deliberate pace.

"This was a suit that was initiated, what, seven years ago?" Charlton asks rhetorically. "And then there was a contempt hearing that [began] about a year ago.

"It's anything but a speedy process. But it is a process, I guess."

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