Only five months after President Donald Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio for his criminal contempt of court conviction, Arpaio's reform-minded successor is on the brink of his own contempt problem.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow ordered Maricopa County Sheriff Penzone and four of his top commanders to appear in person almost every week until the end of March to explain their progress in stamping out discriminatory traffic stops.
The order came after Snow warned Penzone he could slap him with a civil contempt of court ruling, or a fine, after the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office blew another deadline on a court-ordered quarterly progress report.
Penzone testified he’d only learned four days before the hearing that his staff wouldn’t be ready. The problem, Snow and court filings said, was that nobody at MCSO bothered to tell the plaintiffs in the lingering Melendres v. Arpaio civil rights lawsuit nor the federal monitors brought in to keep the agency on track.
Snow was not amused.
“So let me tell you what disturbs me. Between December 4 and this last week of January, nobody knew that there was a bottleneck except you,” Snow told Penzone, according to a transcript of the hearing.
The crux of the issue was that MCSO was supposed to have prepared its third annual review of traffic stop data. That, in turn, is supposed to help commanders identify officers with unjustifiably high rates of pulling over Latinos so that they can retrain them, or if necessary, discipline them.
Previous reports to the court suggested there were 23 “problematic officers.” Penzone removed two from patrol and put one on administrative leave, according to MCSO’s petition seeking a deadline extension.
In that motion, MCSO told the court that supervisors had only started reviewing body camera footage in December, in an effort to locate bias patterns in traffic stops. The overall review process of traffic stop data was taking longer than expected, the agency said. Poring through camera footage was meticulous and time-consuming.
Snow denied the request.
“We may have statistics in year three which indicate that we have other patrol officers that are problematic, and they remain problematic, and they remain unaddressed because they haven't even yet been identified,” Snow told Penzone.
He peppered Penzone with rhetorical questions.
“Had you put anything in place to have anybody advise you about the progress that was going on here or not going on to meet the deadline?
“Where is the communication? Where is the accountability?"
He waited for the answers advising Penzone that his attorneys might suggest he duck the questions because “you're going to be in contempt in a couple of days, or at least risking contempt.”
“You've indicated you're not going to meet the deadline. I don't know what I can do, other than hold you in contempt,” Snow said, “for not meeting that deadline. But the deadline still isn't met.”
Earlier, he had praised Penzone for standing up to critics during a community meeting he attended. He praised the sheriff for letting the ACLU and federal monitors explain the progress and said he believed Penzone was acting in good faith to make sure the process of reporting and reforming MCSO was thorough, rather than just quick.
Snow stopped short of sanctions. He agreed with the county’s lawyers that fining MCSO would only take away resources the agency needs to make reforms stick.
But Snow remained unimpressed.
“I suspect that what happens in this courtroom is when I set a deadline, you scurry to meet it, you implement a plan to meet it, and then you forget it. And nobody follows up, and nobody makes the adjustments that need to be made until you come in again, find you can't meet it, and you ask for another extension,” he observed, noting previous deadlines that MCSO blew.
Then he warned that if court deadlines are ignored or delayed in the future, he might take further action.
The ACLU’s attorney Kathleen Brody urged immediate action.
“We have been in front of you many times pushing this process along. And the sheriff's office has been attempting to get this right for going on almost two years now,” Brody said. “And we just learned about this two days ago, as did the monitor, one week before the deadline.”
“Given that the agency and those within it do not appear to be taking seriously the Court-imposed deadline, which is why we feel that we need another coercive remedy,” she added.
Lawyers for the county were contrite and didn’t object to Snow’s plan.
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“Your Honor, we begin with an apology, and calling it an apology undersells it,” Joseph Branco told Snow.
In court filings, MCSO told the court, “Given the concerns expressed by all involved in the (traffic stop review) process, Sheriff Penzone does not lightly seek this extension. But it is necessary to conclude the process effectively.”
Attempts to seek comment from MCSO were unsuccessful. The ACLU declined comment.
The Melendres lawsuit is now 11 years old. It is becoming Penzone’s personal Vietnam. He didn’t start it, but the conflict drags on, and it remains to be seen whether he has the power to stop it.