Arpaio To Face Civil Contempt Hearing For Disobeying Court Orders

By Jude Joffe-Block
February 12, 2015
Jude Joffe-Block
A protest sign in downtown Phoenix calling for criminal contempt charges against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and four top leaders will face a civil contempt of court hearing in April for repeatedly violating a federal judge’s orders.

United States District Court Judge Murray Snow issued the order Thursday and scheduled the evidentiary hearing for April 21-24. Snow presides over a racial profiling lawsuit against the sheriff’s office and has grown increasingly frustrated with Arpaio’s disobedience in recent months.

The case began about seven years ago when a group of Latinos in Maricopa County — most of them U.S. citizens — sued Arpaio. They argued his crackdown on immigrants here illegally and unfairly targeted Latinos.

In 2013, the group won in court.

Snow ruled the sheriff’s office systematically racially profiled Latinos in its immigration patrols. In October 2013 he ordered major reforms at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, including new training, anti-profiling protocols and an independent monitor to oversee the sheriff’s compliance.

But a few months after Snow issued that order, he obtained evidence of Arpaio and Chief Deputy Gerald Sheridan undermining and mischaracterizing his findings. Sheridan was videotaped using the words “ludicrous” and “crap” in reference to the court’s order.

In recent months, new evidence has surfaced suggesting the sheriff’s office failed to follow a number of court orders. The judge has set the April hearing to find out if Arpaio should be found in contempt of court for these violations.

Four other sheriff’s officials are also facing contempt of court: Sheridan, Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre, Lieutenant Joseph Sousa and former Executive Chief Brian Sands.

University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor David Harris, who is watching this case, said a contempt hearing of this kind is very unusual.

“For a public official to defy a court’s orders often enough that a judge gets to the point of ordering contempt proceedings — this almost never happens,” Harris said.

KJZZ File Photo
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, shown here in a 2011 file photo, could face civil contempt of court charges.

Late last month, Arpaio announced he would seek a seventh term in office. In an email to his supporters, the 82-year-old sheriff said the 2016 race could be his toughest campaign yet.

"As 'America's Toughest Sheriff,' I've been pushing back against radical leftist, law enforcement-bashing demagogues for years and now is their opportunity to take me down," he wrote.

Arpaio included a bullet-point list of obstacles he is facing, including, "Rampant, UNFOUNDED charges of racism and racial profiling in my office."

The sheriff has appealed part of Snow’s racial profiling ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Arpaio was a leading force in Arizona’s strict immigration policies. He conducted sweeps that arrested immigrants without legal status, and then defied federal pressure to stop.

The sheriff’s office used to have a unit dedicated to arresting smugglers and their migrant clients, and another that went after immigrants working with fake IDs.

But a number of federal court rulings, including Snow’s order in this racial profiling case, have determined immigration enforcement is strictly the federal government’s job.

MacIntyre said the sheriff’s office has had to suspend key immigration tactics because of various court orders.

“The federal government is not enforcing immigration law,” MacIntyre said. “And they are refusing to allow anyone else to do it.”

At the April contempt hearing, the judge will examine three instances where the sheriff’s office may have disobeyed the court.

Two involve video evidence of traffic stops, including that the sheriff’s office withheld thousands of videos from plaintiffs before the trial. Another issue is the sheriff’s office seemingly ignored the judge’s order in 2011 to stop detaining immigrants.

“MCSO not only did not comply with that order, but did not even communicate the order to the rank and file…to all the deputies in the agency,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Cecillia Wang, who represents plaintiffs in the suit.

So for months some deputies kept making the very immigration arrests the judge had already ruled were unlawful.

“It was blatantly a disregard for federal court orders and for the U.S. constitution,” Wang said.

Tom Liddy, who represents the sheriff’s office, admitted “there have been mistakes that have been made.”

But Liddy said many of the issues the judge is concerned about came to light because Arpaio and his staff voluntarily disclosed them. He says Arpaio is working hard to comply with the court and shouldn’t be held in contempt.

“This is all evidence of a good faith effort to work together to ensure that the rights of Hispanics in Maricopa County are fully respected and protected,” Liddy said.

If Arpaio and others are found in contempt, they would likely have to pay fines.

The judge has also suggested he may refer the case to a federal prosecutor for criminal contempt charges as well. The penalties for criminal charges could be additional fines or even incarceration.

Arpaio, Sheridan, MacIntyre and Sands have hired criminal defense attorneys.

In the meantime, the sheriff’s lawyers requested a meeting to discuss a settlement.

Snow declined their request for a private meeting, and scheduled a public conference with the parties on Feb. 26.