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Arizona Criminal Law and Procedure Blog

Former Maricopa County Sheriff on Trial for Contempt of Court

Posted by Steven Sherick | Jul 06, 2017 | 0 Comments

In late June, both the prosecution and the defense of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio rested their cases after four days in court. Arpaio is currently being charged for criminal contempt of the court for ignoring a federal judge who ordered him to end his practice of traffic patrols which looked for undocumented immigrants in order to deport them. The date for final arguments in the case is July 7, after which the jury will deliberate on Arpaio's case.

Joe Arpaio was the sheriff of Maricopa County which encompasses Phoenix and the surrounding area and has a population of over 4 million people. He was elected to office six times but lost his seventh bid for re-election in 2016. During his term, he marketed himself as “America's toughest sheriff” and prided himself on an aggressive punishment of inmates and those convicted of all levels of crimes.

Arpaio has been involved in multiple legal battles, mostly alleging his misuse of power and violations of the constitutional rights of inmates. For example, in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit against Arpaio alleging that he “routinely abused pre-trial detainees at Maricopa County Jail by feeding them moldy bread, rotten fruit and other contaminated food, housing them in cells so hot as to endanger their health, denying them care for serious medical and mental health needs and keeping them packed as tightly as sardines in holding cells for days at a time during intake.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Arpaio to fix the conditions.

In the particular case currently moving its way through trial, Arpaio has been accused of criminal contempt of the court. In 2012, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow ordered Arpaio's office “to halt detentions based on nothing more than a suspicion that a person might be in violation of federal immigration law.” The sheriff had made it a practice to use police officers to pull over drivers who might be assumed to be undocumented immigrants in order to increase deportation. This practice amounted to racial profiling according to the federal judge, as police should not pull drivers over without observing some violation of the law.

After the federal judge ordered that Arpaio ends this practice, the sheriff told the media “I'm still gonna do what I'm doing. I'm still gonna arrest illegal aliens.” He then proceeded to order racially motivated traffic stops for 18 months after the federal judge's order. He stopped around 170 people in that time period. The judge then concluded that Arpaio was displaying criminal contempt of court and charged him. If convicted, he could face up to six months in prison. The prosecution must prove that Arpaio intentionally violated the order to get a conviction.

About the Author

Steven Sherick

Steve Sherick is a "near native" Arizonan having lived most of his life in Tucson.  He received his undergraduate and legal education at the University of Arizona.  Since 1980 he has devoted all of his practice to criminal law, always in defense of those accused of crimes.  He received his Board ...

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