Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been convicted of criminal contempt. Wochit
PHOENIX — The immigration policies that elevated former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to fame were the same that would ultimately lead to his political demise, and now have made him a convicted criminal.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton found Arpaio, the former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff, guilty of criminal contempt of court, finding that he willfully violated a federal judge’s order.
Arpaio issued a statement Monday saying he will appeal the ruling and will continue to press for a jury trial.
The sentencing phase will begin Oct. 5. Arpaio faces up to six months in confinement, a sentence equivalent to that of a misdemeanor.
Bolton’s ruling follows a five-day June and July trial, in which Department of Justice prosecutors argued that the 85-year-old had intentionally flouted a federal judge’s orders halting Arpaio’s signature immigration round-ups.
In December 2011, amid a long-running racial profiling case, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow ordered Arpaio’s deputies to stop holding individuals solely on the belief they were in the country illegally. They only were to detain those who were accused of a state crime.
But Arpaio’s deputies continued to do so for at least 17 months thereafter. During the bench trial, witnesses testified that 171 individuals were illegally apprehended and then turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or to the Border Patrol.
The verdict is a rejection of Arpaio’s defense: That the order was unclear and that, although mistakes had been made, the violations were unintended. Willful intent is required to prove criminal, rather than civil contempt.
“The evidence at trial proves beyond a reasonable doubt and the Court finds that
Judge (G. Murray) Snow issued a clear and definite order enjoining Defendant from detaining persons for further investigation without reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed; that Defendant knew of the order; and that Defendant willfully violated the order by failing to do anything to ensure his subordinates’ compliance and by directing them to continue to detain persons for whom no criminal charges could be filed,” Bolton wrote in the ruling.
“Because the Court finds that Defendant willfully violated an order of the court, it finds Defendant guilty of criminal contempt.”
Monday’s decision was the culmination of a decade-long racial-profiling case that began after allegations that Arpaio’s deputies were targeting Latinos during their immigration-enforcement operations.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Arpaio’s office was known as the “tip of the spear” that would enforce the state’s hardline immigration efforts. Its crackdowns included “pretextual” traffic stops to net those in the country illegally, and patrol sweeps that zeroed in on Hispanic neighborhoods.
Many of those taken into custody were not accused of violating a state crime, but only of living in the country illegally. Once they were detained, deputies would turn over the individuals to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol officials, who would initiate deportation proceedings.
The intent was to essentially act as another arm of the federal government, which has exclusive power to enforce civil-immigration violations.
U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow presided over the civil case, ruling in 2013 Arpaio’s office had racially profiled.
At the time, the ruling seemed to signal the end of a costly county battle with civil-rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
But the case only continued to expand as the office struggled to implement mandated reforms, and as allegations of the office violating Snow’s orders began to cement.
In 2015, Snow ordered a civil trial of sorts, to determine whether Arpaio’s office had violated three separate orders. Two centered on allegations that the department had failed to turn over evidence in case, and the third on whether Arpaio had violated a 2011 preliminary injunction that barred deputies from detaining migrants not suspected of a crime.
Last year, Snow found Arpaio and three aids guilty of civil contempt. He then referred Arpaio, two aides and a former attorney for criminal contempt charges, though federal prosecutors opted to only pursue Arpaio, and to only charge him on preliminary injunction violation.
The proceedings lasted four days in June, and closing arguments were heard July 6. It was Arpaio’s first major court appearance since his crushing defeat to Paul Penzone in November’s election.
During the trial, prosecutors from the Justice Department’s Public Integrity section showed how Arpaio’s deputies illegally detained 171 individuals after Snow’s December 2011 injunction.
They showcased press releases, media clips and old depositions to demonstrate Arpaio was more interested in burnishing his political reputation than following a judge’s orders. Arpaio’s hardline immigration platform was popular with conservatives throughout the country, and he faced re-election in 2012.
In the clips and press releases, Arpaio is quoted—after the injunction—saying that he will continue to enforce state and federal immigration law.
In one particularly potent clip, Arpaios is seen talking to an inmate at his jails, who states that Arpaio is outranked by federal law.
“No,” Arpaio said. “Nobody is higher than me. I am the elected sheriff by the people. I don’t serve any governor or the president.”
Federal trial attorney John Keller said Arpaio’s words show that he was willfully defiant of Snow’s order.
“He didn’t care about the federal court injunction,” Keller said. “That wasn’t going to stop him from running his office the way he saw fit.”
Arpaio’s defense attorneys instead argued that Snow’s order left room for interpretation. For an individual to be found in criminal contempt, the judge’s order but be “clear and definite.”
Defense attorney Dennis Wilenchik pointed out how numerous members of MCSO seemed to be confused about the order.
“The only one who understood what Judge Snow meant was judge snow himself,” he said.
Another key defense strategy involved shirking blame to Arpaio’s former defense attorney, Tim Casey. Defense attorney Dennis Wilenchik said Casey neglected to follow up on training scenarios that would have clarified the order.
Casey had testified earlier that he had explained the order several times, and that Arpaio had assured him the office already wasn’t doing the things the order prohibited.
Ultimately, Wilenchik had said, there was “not one shred of evidence” that Arpaio had intentionally defied the judge.
Follow Megan Cassidy on Twitter: @meganrcassidy