Federal prosecutors announced that they would bring criminal contempt charges against America’s Most Racist Sheriff, Joe Arpaio of Maricoppa County in Arizona. In doing so, they are following a Federal Judge’s recommendation that the sheriff be punished beyond the civil penalties the judge could impose. Arpaio repeatedly violated the judge’s orders to cease racially profiling and harassing Latinos. According to The Arizona Republic:
The move has few precedents in U.S. history, as prosecutors endorsed a federal judge’s findings that the lawman intentionally violated the judge’s orders.
The announcement came Tuesday at the case’s first criminal hearing in downtown Phoenix’s federal court.
In August, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow referred Arpaio, Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, Capt. Steve Bailey and defense attorney Michele Iafrate to be charged with criminal contempt of court.
Arpaio’s charge stems from a December 2011 federal court order that barred his agency from enforcing federal immigration law. It is alleged that his deputies continued to do so, however, for at least 18 months thereafter.
The criminal referral is the latest development in a case that began in 2007, when Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist legally in the United States, was stopped outside a church in Cave Creek where day laborers were known to gather. Melendres, the passenger in a car driven by a white driver, claimed that deputies detained him for nine hours and that the detention was unlawful.
Eventually, the case grew to include complaints from two Hispanic siblings from Chicago who believed they were profiled by sheriff’s deputies, and an assistant to former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon whose Hispanic husband claimed he was detained and cited while white motorists nearby were treated differently.
In May 2013, Snow found that Arpaio’s law-enforcement practices illegally targeted Latinos. The federal judge ordered sweeping reforms for the office, but for the three years since, the case has continued to attract controversy.
Allegations arose that Arpaio and his aides had defied three of the judge’s orders stemming from the case.
First, they were accused of violating a December 2011 injunction that banned deputies from immigration-based policing. Snow also learned of two separate instances involving the collection of video evidence in which his orders had been defied.
While Arpaio and his cohorts admitted violating three of Snow’s orders, they insisted the missteps were unintentional. By law, intent could mean the difference between civil and criminal contempt.
Snow found cause for both.
In May, Snow found Arpaio and three of his aides in civil contempt for ignoring the three orders. The order was monumental though not unexpected, as Arpaio and Sheridan already had admitted as much.
It wasn’t until August that Snow dealt the blow Arpaio and his attorneys had feared. Arpaio and Sheridan would be referred for charges of criminal contempt as well as perjury, for misstatements made on the stand. Bailey and Michele Iafrate, Arpaio’s former defense attorney, also were referred for criminal prosecution, but only for contempt allegations.
Bailey and Iafrate are accused of trying to withhold evidence that was ordered to be turned over to the court.
Outside the courthouse, about 100 protesters gathered. They said they were there to call on the justice system to hold Arpaio accountable.
They rallied near a massive inflatable doll depicting Arpaio in a striped prison uniform.
The crowd started small until a group of students from high schools across Phoenix joined the protest. They held hands and protest signs. Others raised their fists in the air. They shouted: “This is what community looks like!”