Arpaio Is Still Guilty: Despite Pardon, Judge Declines to Vacate Verdict

A federal judge denied former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's attempt to wipe out his guilty verdict in light of a presidential pardon.
A federal judge denied former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's attempt to wipe out his guilty verdict in light of a presidential pardon. Phoenix New Times
Joe Arpaio remains a marked man.

Despite the former sheriff’s best efforts, a U.S. district judge denied his motion to vacate a guilty verdict from earlier this year, which found Arpaio in criminal contempt of court.

In the decision late yesterday, Arizona U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton smacked down Arpaio's argument that his pardon should erase the court's underlying finding of the guilty verdict. She went as far as to note that accepting a pardon carries a confession of guilt.

In a brief ruling, Bolton argued that although President Trump granted Arpaio a pardon, ending his criminal case and sparing him a sentencing hearing, the presidential act of mercy doesn't rid him of the guilty verdict.

A presidential pardon “does not erase a judgment of conviction, or its underlying legal and factual findings,” Bolton wrote. She then quoted a Supreme Court decision on the scope of a presidential pardon: “Indeed, a pardon ‘carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it.’”

Wasting no time, on Thursday evening Arpaio’s attorneys prepared to file the necessary paperwork to appeal the decision to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In an October 4 hearing, Bolton weighed amicus curie briefs from several groups, including a coalition of over 30 Democratic lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union.

They argued that Arpaio’s request was invalid because the former sheriff had been found guilty of criminal contempt of court. Trump’s pardon amounted to an act of clemency, they said, waiving the punishment for someone who had been found guilty, but not erasing the guilty finding itself.

In the brief, the ACLU referenced the landmark racial-profiling and civil rights lawsuit, Ortega Melendres v. Arpaio, which led to Arpaio's guilty verdict and contempt of court finding after he flouted a court order in that case.

"Arpaio’s requested vacatur would gravely harm the principle of rule of law which the court in Ortega Melendres sought to protect when it recommended criminal prosecution for Defendant’s contempt," the brief stated.

Some legal experts were closely watching Arpaio's hearing earlier this month as a test of the president's pardon powers because the Melendres decision said Arpaio and his deputies had not merely broken a law — they had routinely violated the constitutional rights of individuals.

Arpaio's subsequent conviction of contempt of court held him in violation of the rule of law, essentially saying he had run roughshod over the court. Bolton confirmed the pardon was valid, but left the door open as to whether she would vacate all of the orders in the Melendres case, which would wipe away Arpaio's guilty verdict from a July 31 decision.

For the former sheriff's opponents, the ruling is a small victory in the face of a heartbreaking deus ex machina pardon from Arpaio's pal in the White House, after years of legal battles and last year's campaign, which forced the sheriff from an office he had held for decades.

Barring an upset in the court of appeals, his guilt in the Melendres orders and a record of shocking, systemic racial profiling will remain on the books.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty