Anti-Immigrant Sheriff Referred for Federal Prosecution
Fernanda Santos, © 2016 New York Times News Service
PHOENIX — A federal judge Friday referred Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his second-in-command for criminal prosecution, finding that they ignored and misrepresented to subordinates court orders designed to keep the sheriff’s office from racially profiling Latinos.
In making the referral to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal contempt charges, Judge G. Murray Snow of U.S. District Court in Phoenix delivered the sharpest rebuke against Arpaio, who as the long-serving sheriff in Maricopa County made a name for himself as an unrelenting pursuer of undocumented immigrants.
Arpaio and Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan “have a history of obfuscation and subversion of this court’s orders that is as old as this case,” Snow wrote in his order.
Arpaio and Sheridan had also made numerous false statements under oath, Snow wrote, and “there is also probable cause to believe that many if not all of the statements were made in an attempt to obstruct any inquiry into their further wrongdoing or negligence.”
The referral does not mean the sheriff will face criminal charges; it is up to federal prosecutors to decide whether to pursue the case. Still, if the prosecutors do not take the case, the judge could appoint a special prosecutor.
“A criminal prosecution of Sheriff Arpaio is the right next step for justice to be done,” Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit resulting in the court orders, said in a statement. “When a federal court finds that a law enforcement official has lied to the court in an effort to cover up misconduct, and willfully flouted court orders, that official must be held to account.”
Snow’s referral also extends to Capt. Steve R. Bailey, who was in charge of internal affairs investigations in the sheriff’s office, and a lawyer for Arpaio, Michele M. Iafrate. They were both accused of withholding information from a court-appointed monitor about the existence of 1,459 IDs seized in law enforcement operations.
Ultimately, though, Snow laid the blame squarely on Arpaio. “The court,” he wrote, “has reminded Sheriff Arpaio that he is the party to the lawsuit, not his subordinates, and thus the failure of his subordinates to carry out this court’s orders would amount to his own failure to do so.”
In his decision, Snow removed several of Arpaio’s powers, including his ability to oversee internal affairs investigations. The judge had already found that Arpaio and his deputies had mishandled and manipulated such investigations, in part to obscure wrongdoing or neglect by deputies.
The lawsuit has already cost taxpayers more than $50 million in legal fees and contributed to Arizona’s reputation for bias against immigrants.
Gov. Doug Ducey has worked to redefine the state’s relationship to Mexico, bruised by the immigration law signed by his predecessor that empowered the police to ask about the legal status of anyone whom they suspected of being in the country illegally. Arpaio, meanwhile, has remained a loyal ally of Donald Trump, amplifying his calls for a wall along the southern border, paid for by Mexico.
Arpaio has alternated between meek and defiant in and outside court, openly criticizing Snow to reporters and often characterizing the racial profiling case against him as a political vendetta by the Obama administration.
“The truth will come out,” he said in a recent interview from Tent City here, where inmates are housed in recommissioned Korean War tents, exposed to this city’s torrid summer heat.
The case was filed in 2007 on behalf of Latino drivers who claimed they had been systematically targeted by sheriff’s deputies during traffic stops and immigration patrols. Snow agreed, ordering changes in training and procedures, including a requirement that officers relay by radio the reason for each stop before approaching a driver.
But in May, the judge found Arpaio and his top deputies in contempt of court, saying that they had “engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty and bad faith” and “demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of the court.” His decision to ask the U.S. attorney’s office to bring criminal charges came despite Arpaio’s apologies and pleas by one of his lawyers, Mel McDonald in court last month.
“One thing I’m convinced, judge, is that you want to see the process succeed," McDonald said. He listed reasons against a criminal referral — Arpaio’s age (he is 84) and “long career in public service,” his apologies for disrespecting the court’s order, and the “hundreds, if not thousands of hours” already spent to comply with it.
Snow told McDonald that Arpaio and Sheridan had “lied to my face” during the contempt hearings. Then he leaned closer to the microphone and said, “I am through putting up with that kind of stuff, and they’re going to be as responsible for what they do here as any other citizen of Maricopa County.”
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that Arpaio violated the court’s orders to score political points before a re-election race in 2012. He is running for a seventh term in November and has raised some $10 million in donations, mostly from out-of-state supporters.
Snow also called for compensation for drivers who were pulled over by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies after he had ordered a stop to their immigration patrols. The judge ordered the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to create a $500,000 compensation fund, an amount that could be increased if it is paid out before all of the victims are compensated.
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