MCSO Sergeant Brett Palmer sang like Pavarotti on the stand Tuesday afternoon during his boss Sheriff Joe Arpaio's civil contempt trial, laying the blame for the MCSO's defiance of a federal court's orders directly at his jefe's feet.
Dressed in civilian attire, Palmer, who once helped manage the MCSO's now-defunct Human Smuggling Unit, explained that when federal Judge G. Murray Snow issued an order December 2011, enjoining the MCSO from enforcing civil federal immigration law, he thought all deputies at MCSO should receive training regarding it.
Palmer described the 2011 order as a "180-degree" turn from the HSU's policy of detaining Latinos based on suspicion they were in the country illegally.
Judge Snow had written, in words later echoed by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision on Arizona's anti-immigration statute, Senate Bill 1070, that mere unlawful presence in the United States is not a crime and that suspicion of same did not give local law enforcement license to detain an individual, absent evidence of a crime.
Palmer said he received direction from the "chain of command" to work up a new list of training scenarios based on Snow's order.
If the MCSO had no evidence of a state crime, he interpreted, then the person must be released.
These training scenarios were given to his supervisor Lieutenant Joe Sousa, who relayed them to higher-ups.
Palmer said he held informal training of members of the Human Smuggling Unit, but agency-wide training of all deputies did not occur.
ACLU attorney Cecillia Wang asked Palmer his opinion of why the broader training never took place.
"It was contrary to the goals and objectives of the sheriff," he replied.
When Palmer said this, from the backbench of the courthouse, I heard an unidentified male mumble, "Attaboy."
See, though both Arpaio and his Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan have admitted to civil contempt of Judge Snow's rulings in the ACLU's big civil rights case Melendres v. Arpaio, this week's four-day hearing and another in June are for the purpose of determining if the actions of Arpaio and four co-defendants rise to the level of criminal contempt.
Which would require evidence that Arpaio, et al. willfully defied the court.
Palmer's testimony offered that sort of evidence. Indeed, both Palmer's time on the stand and testimony given by Palmer's onetime superior, ex-Executive Chief Brian Sands, offered a portrait of a Joe Arpaio in near total control of his agency.
For instance, Arpaio once changed the name of the Human Smuggling Unit to the "Human Smuggling Division," Palmer said, because, according to Arpaio, "a division had better media appeal."
Palmer also claimed Arpaio wanted the MCSO to do "immigration road blocks," and he was asked to draft a legal opinion on the matter, even though he admittedly is not a lawyer.
His opinion cited case law, he said, which showed that "we absolutely could not do immigration roadblocks."
The idea died. On cross-examination, Arpaio's attorney, Michelle Iafrate, mocked the idea of Palmer's being asked to give a legal opinion, but Palmer's tale rings true for a couple of reasons.
During the 2012 bench trial in Melendres, it was revealed that Chief Sands had asked Palmer to research whether the MCSO could continue to enforce immigration law, even without a grant of so-called 287(g) authority from the federal government.
Palmer cut and pasted inaccurate info from a website, which stated that local cops had "inherent authority" to enforce civil immigration law, giving it to his bosses.
Amazingly, Arpaio later cited the information publicly after the MCSO was stripped of its federal 287(g) power by ICE.
As for roadblocks, they have always had an appeal for Arpaio. Way back in 1993, Arpaio wanted to surround the county with drug-interdiction roadblocks, until his nemesis, former County Attorney Rick Romley, put the kibosh on the idea.
Arpaio's repeated statements of opposition to federal immigration policy and the sheriff's insistence that the MCSO could enforce immigration law, trickled down to the deputies, according to Palmer.
One of the "prevailing rules" of the MCSO was that it is the duty of deputies "to make the sheriff look good to the media and the public," Palmer said.
Palmer said Arpaio was "very involved" in the HSU, even going so far as to micromanage some HSU arrests.
The deputy described one incident within a month of Snow's 2011 order, wherein a vehicle was stopped by the MCSO on suspicion that the occupants had violated Arizona's anti-smuggling law.
Palmer said there was no reason to hold about five of the occupants, who had been transported to an MCSO support station for further investigation. Palmer contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but ICE refused to take them.
Palmer believed he could no longer legally continue to hold the individuals, and so called U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which CBP would take them if they were transported to a facility in Casa Grande.
Before this could happen, Palmer's immediate supervisor, Lieutenant Sousa, instructed him to call Arpaio's cell phone and gave him the number.
Palmer did this. Arpaio ordered him to continue to hold the individuals until the sheriff was able to arrive at the support station.
"I told the sheriff that was an unlawful order, and that it would violate the [federal] court's order," Palmer said.
Palmer and the sheriff argued, with both men raising their voices.
"I stuck to my ground with the sheriff," Palmer said.
Eventually, Arpaio gave in, relenting only when Palmer agreed to take photographs of the individuals, whom he described as a couple of women, a couple of children, and one man.
Why Arpaio wanted photos, Palmer did not know.
Thing is, Palmer's decision to transport the individuals to CBP also was in violation of the judge's order.
He should have just cut them loose, but Palmer said he did not do so because they had no place to go.
On cross-examination by Iafrate, Palmer admitted that he was not happy with his career at MCSO and had been passed over on a promotion for lieutenant on two occasions.
Whatever Palmer's motivation, he was the star of the afternoon, a situation I found amusing, given that Palmer once was a demonstrative supporter of the sheriff's.
In 2009, for instance, he earned his nickname (from yours truly) of Brett "Shut Up" Palmer, when he participated in a demonstration, where he told the news media that critics of the MCSO, who had been accusing the organization of racial profiling, needed to zip it.
History has proved both Palmer and his similarly emphatic supervisor, Sousa, wrong: In 2013, Snow found the MCSO guilty of widespread racial profiling and ordered a laundry list of reforms to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor.
Sousa, one of the defendants in the civil contempt trial, sat in the audience of the courtroom Tuesday with a man I'm guessing was his attorney. Sousa spent much of the time doing upper-body stretches, grunting slightly as he did so.
Sands began his testimony in late afternoon, saying he discussed the court's 2011 order at the time with then-MCSO attorney Tim Casey.
"He mentioned that we should curtail the saturation patrols," Sands said on the stand.
Casey told him that the HSU still could perform duties related to the state human smuggling law, which has since been overturned by another federal judge.
Sands recalled a meeting with Arpaio where Sands says he expressed an opinion, like Palmer's, that all deputies should be trained on the new order.
But Arpaio told him, "We're going to do what our attorney says, and [just train HSU]."
Plaintiffs' attorney Stanley Young played a portion of Sands' pre-trial deposition, where it was made to sound like Arpaio was the shot-caller regarding whether to seek an appeal in Melendres.
Arpaio never talked about complying with Snow's orders, according to Sands. Quite the contrary.
Sands described his opinions on a so-called "drop-house scenario," which he'd relayed to Arpaio.
"After we arrested anyone on state charges" said Sands of a hypothetical drop-house raid, "anyone left, MCSO must let that person go, and not take them to Border Patrol or ICE."
What did Arpaio think of that?
"He disagreed with me," Sands deadpanned.
Throughout the testimony, Arpaio slumped in his chair with a constipated, Nixon-esque look on his face.
During the short lunch break, as he waited in line at a little cafe on the ground floor of the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse, I asked him if he was going to take the Fifth when he took the stand.
He did not look pleased and remained mum.
The only excitement during the morning was when Deputy County Attorney Tom Liddy announced, to the surprise of all -- including Arpaio's civil attorney Michelle Iafrate -- that he would remove himself from the defense table because of vaguely described "ethical" issues caused by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' recent decision.
See, in addition to upholding much of Snow's 2013 ruling in Melendres, the appeals court suggested that the party to be sued in the case should rightfully be Maricopa County, not the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, as the MCSO is what's referred to as a "non-jural" entity.
Liddy, who repped both Arpaio and the MCSO, said he would consult with his attorney and promised to return with a definitive answer on his "ethical" constraints.
This Liddy did by day's end, showing up to announce that he would officially withdraw as counsel.
Iafrate was flummoxed from Liddy's first mention of his wish to remove himself. She suggested that she had the same possible conflicts as Liddy but Snow would not let her off the case, essentially saying the change from MCSO to Maricopa County as defendant was not that big of a deal.
Liddy's letter to Arpaio and his official motion to withdraw indicate that he believes, according to the state bar's Rules of Professional Conduct, there could be a conflict between his clients if he continues on the case.
Another rodent jumping for the clear water?
Could be Liddy just saw his chance and went for it.
Can't say I blame him.
After all, Arpaio's longtime attorney Tim Casey, who'd been on Melendres since the beginning, withdrew as counsel in November, leaving Liddy and Iafrate to handle Arpaio's misdeeds.
Now there's just Iafrate on the civil portion, and former U.S. Attorney Mel McDonald representing Arpaio on any criminal portion, if it comes to that.
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And if Palmer and Sands are any indication, it indeed will come to that.
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