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Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio found guilty of criminal contempt

Ruling that former Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio "willfully violated an order of the court," a federal judge in Phoenix found him guilty of criminal contempt on Monday.

In the 14-page decision, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton found that Arpaio and his staff, showed a "flagrant disregard" for a court order to stop arresting people on the suspicion that they were unlawfully present in the United States.

Another federal court judge had ordered Arpaio to stop the practice of arresting motorists solely on suspicion they might be in the country illegally, but Arpaio "announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise," Bolton ruled.

Arpaio faces up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for the violation, and is scheduled for sentencing on October 5. 

Arpaio promoted himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff" and built his reputation by tilting at the federal government, and engaging hard-nosed practices that made him a conservative darling. 

While his agency was being accused of civil rights violations, Arpaio also launched an attack against President Barack Obama, arguing that the president's birth certificate was fake. 

In December 2011, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ruled that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office violated the constitutional rights of people by detaining them without state charges, solely for violating civil immigration law. 

However, despite this ruling, Arpaio allowed his deputies to continue holding people for another 17 months despite Snow's "clear and definite" order forbidding it, said Bolton. 

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Arpaio argued during trial that he had the authority to detain people under Arizona's controversial immigration bill, SB 1070 and under a federal agreement, known as 287(g), that allowed local police agencies to enforce immigration law. 

In 2009, the federal government rescinded MCSO's 287(g) agreement. 

However, Bolton ruled that Snow's order was clear: Arpaio and his agency could not continue this practice.

"Judge Snow’s preliminary injunction spelled out that detaining those persons past the time sufficient to conduct a criminal investigation was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights and that Defendant had to cease the practice immediately," she wrote. 

Attorneys for Arpaio argued that the violations were the result of miscommunication, and that he had delegated enforcement of the order to his staff.

However, Bolton rejected this claim, saying that it was clear that Arpaio knew about the order, and that Arpaio said on "numerous occasions that he would continue to keep doing what he has been doing." 

Arpaio "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.

His attorneys said they would appeal.

Arpaio’s office had good reason to pull over motorists, defense attorney Dennis Wilenchik said.

“What the sheriff’s office interpreted that (court order) to mean, what everyone at the trial interpreted that to mean, is that you don’t stop someone just for being an illegal alien,” Wilenchik said.

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“The confusion here is that’s not what the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was doing. Police generally stop someone for criminal violations. That’s exactly what the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was doing,” Wilenchik said.

Arpaio's trouble began in 2007, when the American Civil Liberties Union led a lawsuit against Arpaio, arguing that his agency racially profiled and illegally detained Latinos, violating their constitutional rights. 

Snow ruled against the agency in 2011, and then again in 2013. 

In May 2016, Snow once against ruled against Arpaio, finding that he and his top deputies repeatedly violated court orders, and charged Arpaio with civil contempt of court. 

"The Court finds that the Defendants have engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith with respect to the Plaintiff class and the protection of its rights. They have demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of the Court, as well as an intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct," wrote Snow. 

The ACLU celebrated Bolton's finding. 

"This verdict is a vindication for the many victims of Joe Arpaio’s immigration policies, which were unconstitutional to begin with, and were doubly illegal when Arpaio flouted the court’s orders," said Cecellia Wang, the deputy legal director for the ACLU. "Joe Arpaio learned his lesson the hard way—no one, not even America’s so-called toughest sheriff, is above the law."

While Arpaio's pugnacious style kept him in office for six terms, in 2016, Maricopa County voters refused to give him a seventh, instead voting for Democrat Paul Penzone. 

In a statement, Sheriff Penzone called Bolton's ruling a "conclusion to the disservice and distractions caused by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio."

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said that "finally, the long, bitter and hurtful chapter of his rule in Arizona ends."

"For more than 24 years, Joe Arpaio has sowed fear in our communities and tarnished the public’s confidence in our law enforcement," said the Tucson Democrat, whose district extends to southern Maricopa County. "Today's ruling confirms what many of us have known all along; Mr. Arapio's actions as sheriff were well beyond his jurisdiction and he knowingly abused his authority for years."

Arpaio’s defense attorneys said during Arpaio’s trial before Bolton in June that he did not intentionally violate a 2011 order from Judge Snow “from detaining persons for further investigation without reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed,” the verdict document says.

But Bolton disagreed, outlining specific examples in news releases and media interviews of Arpaio vowing to continue the practice of detaining persons suspected of being illegal and turning them over to federal immigration authorities.

In fact, the sheriff’s office took detainees that Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t accept to the nearest Border Patrol station in Casa Grande, even though they were “not suspected of any crime,” the document says.

Cronkite News reporter Chris Benincaso contributed to this report.


TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio tells an Oro Valley audience about battling the federal government over immigration laws in the state in 2014.