Updated 6 p.m.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio may face civil and even criminal contempt charges stemming from his office's failure to comply with a court order issued in the Melendres civil rights case. In that case, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office was found to have illegally racially profiled Latinos in its attempts to enforce immigration law.
The case, which was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing today, was temporarily put on hold as Judge G. Murray Snow considers possible contempt violations on the part of Arpaio and the MCSO.
In front of the crowded courtroom, Snow addressed the sheriff and the issues at hand immediately. "I do acknowledge here the presence of the Sheriff," he said. "I appreciate him being here. I have some deep concerns and I'm glad he's here to hear them. I believe there have been some serious violations that require this court to take action."
Snow went on to raise two issues he sees as potentially contemptuous: First, the continued practice by the MCSO's Human Smuggling Unit -- the very unit charged with enforcing immigration law -- of pulling people over solely on suspicion that they might be undocumented immigrants. Snow banned this practice as unconstitutional in a December 2012 injunction. An additional 18 months passed before the Human Smuggling Unit ceased the practice.
"That is a serious violation in direct contradiction to this court's authority," Snow said.
Second, Snow referenced the failure of the MCSO to hand over evidence in the Melendres case to the plaintiffs.
Snow said there are several other issues for which Arpaio and the MCSO might be held in contempt. Because those are under seal, he declined to address them in open court Thursday but said he is considering them as well.
Snow clearly had done research on his legal authority to hold Arpaio in contempt. He named several statues under which he believes he could order a contempt hearing against the sheriff, and he pointed out that the law allows for both civil and criminal contempt charges to be brought against the sheriff for his behaviors.
Snow plans to first look at the civil contempt option, which he described as compensatory -- Arpaio could be ordered to pay up to $1,000 to victims of unfair profiling, he said -- but noted that finding all the parties affected by the sheriff's contemptuous behavior might prove difficult.
If it does, Snow said, he will consider instead pushing for a criminal contempt case to be brought against Arpaio, and possibly even several additional high-ranking MCSO officers, many of whom were in attendance at Thursday's hearing. Snow warned Arpaio and his attorney that criminal contempt charges are "a very real possibility."
"My recommendation is that we have a civil contempt proceeding on several matters," Snow said. "If he is held in civil contempt but I cannot find any civil remedy that will meet the nature of these infractions, I fully intend to make a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney of the sheriff and possibly others."
Snow said he particularly looks forward to the results of an ongoing investigation as to why his 2012 injunction was not communicated to the MCSO unit that continued conducting illegal traffic stops. He named Chief Jack McIntyre, Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, Deputy Chief Brian Sands, and Lieutenant Joe Sousa, and told them, "You may also and should also be on alert that to the extent I cannot find some sort of civil remedy that works, criminal contempt is something they may also want to consider and obtain council for."
A different judge and prosecuting attorney would be assigned to handle any criminal contempt cases, Snow said. Criminal contempt charges can result in jail time.
Snow asked a high-ranking member of the U.S. Attorney's Office to be present in the courtroom Thursday so that her office can begin to get a grasp on the issues at play in case criminal charges are brought.
Arpaio brought a lawyer, Melvin McDonald, to the hearing.
When asked how long he'd need to prepare a memorandum outlining his responses to the issues Snow raised, McDonald said he's only been on the case for a matter of 40 hours. He said he remains hopeful that criminal proceedings can be avoided, and added that he hasn't even filed a notice of appearance -- a formal notice that he is enrolling in the case -- at this time.
"With all due respect, Mr. McDonald, file a notice of appearance," Snow said.
Snow gave McDonald and both sides in the Melendres case until January 8 to file written memoranda -- each team is capped at 30 pages -- addressing the concerns he laid out today. He said he won't likely allow for parties to respond to one another's memos, and will instead take them into consideration before coming to his own conclusion about what's next for Arpaio.
After the courtroom cleared, McDonald could be seen addressing a silent Arpaio for several minutes near the defense table.
Arpaio exited the federal courthouse into a small throng of protestors, many chanting, "Arrest Arpaio, not the people."
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