A federal judge has found former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt of court, ruling that the six-term sheriff showed "flagrant disregard" for a court order telling his agency to stop racially profiling Latinos.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton ruled Monday that the scion of conservative Arizona politics deliberately violated a court order stemming from a class-action civil rights lawsuit.
A four-day trial in June hinged on the wording of the court order U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow issued on Dec. 23, 2011. In that order, Snow told MCSO to stop detaining illegal immigrants unless deputies had probable cause they broke state laws unrelated to immigration.
Federal prosecutors had to prove that Judge Snow’s order was unambiguous, that Arpaio knew and understood it, and that he willfully violated it.
Arpaio’s attorneys argued that the 85-year-old ex-sheriff delegated responsibility of immigration enforcement to MCSO’s Human Smuggling Unit. Defense attorneys told the court that Arpaio’s subordinates and legal advisers let him down and “dropped the ball” by not articulating the order clearly and not following through on adherence to it.
They immediately released a statement indicating that Arpaio plans to appeal. "Joe Arpaio will appeal Judge Susan Bolton's misdemeanor contempt verdict in order to get a trial by jury.
"Today, Judge Susan Bolton violated the United States Constitution by issuing her verdict without even reading it to the Defendant in public court. Her verdict is contrary to what every single witness testified in the case. Arpaio believes that a jury would have found in his favor, and that it will," Jack and Dennis Wilenchik and Martin Goldman wrote.
"Judge Bolton found that an order by her fellow Judge G. Murray Snow, who is in the same building and sits on the same Arizona court, clearly said something that it did not even say: that the MCSO was prohibited from turning illegal aliens over to Border Patrol or ICE. Every witness in the case testified that the order was not clear, even though Judge Bolton and her fellow judge say so. Numerous law enforcement agencies also continue to do this. In fact, the DOJ now goes after agencies that refuse to do this," defense attorneys added.
Judge Bolton accepted fully the U.S. Justice Department's argument that Arpaio essentially thumbed his nose at the federal government.
“Not only did defendant abdicate responsibility, he announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise,” Bolton wrote in her verdict, released Monday.
“The evidence shows a flagrant disregard for Judge Snow’s order,” Bolton concluded.
She cited a string of Arpaio’s own statements in the days and weeks after Snow’s temporary injunction.
Seven days after Snow’s preliminary order, Arpaio said he “will continue to enforce illegal immigration laws.”
In subsequent interviews, he told news crews: “I won’t back down and I will continue to do what I’ve been doing,” and, “Until the laws are changed, my deputies will continue to enforce state and federal immigration laws.”
Arpaio’s counsel in the civil rights case, Timothy Casey, testified he told MCSO leaders, including the sheriff, that the order meant he had to “arrest or release” illegal immigrants without evidence of further crimes. Deputies could no longer turn them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because MCSO no longer had federal authority to enforce civil immigration laws.
But Arpaio, Bolton concluded, came up with what he described as his backup plan: turn illegal immigrants over to the U.S. Border Patrol instead. In total, prosecutors showed, the Human Smuggling Unit directed 171 people to the Border Patrol station in Casa Grande.
When plaintiffs in the original civil rights lawsuit complained, Casey confronted Arpaio, who told him it was a mistake and would stop. It didn’t, prosecutors showed in court.
“These detentions, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, were exactly what the preliminary injunction intended to stop,” Bolton ruled.
The man who ousted Arpaio in November, Sheriff Paul Penzone, said in a prepared statement: "The verdict today by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton is a conclusion to the disservice and distractions caused by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We have a great respect for the justice system and the process and responsibility to carry out justice."
Arpaio now faces up to six months in jail, but trial observers have said throughout that they deemed such an outcome unlikely.
Arpaio is due to appear for sentencing on Oct. 5.
Immediately after the verdict, there were no mass celebrations outside the federal courthouse or outside the Maricopa Sheriff's Office complex downtown.
"I think that after he didn't win re-election; no one cares anymore," Chenoa Yazzie of Mesa, who was sitting outside the Fourth Avenue Jail, said. "He was replaced and everything kinda died. You can only protest so long."
New Times reporter Antonia Noori Farzan contributed to this story