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Arpaio Finds Himself In Court As Civil Contempt Hearing Begins

joe arpaio
Ross D. Franklin/AP via Here & Now
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handout | agency
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio pauses as he answers a question at a news conference at Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Headquarters in Phoenix, Dec. 18, 2013.

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Arpaio Finds Himself In Court As Civil Contempt Hearing Begins

Arpaio Finds Himself In Court As Civil Contempt Hearing Begins

(Ross D. Franklin/AP via Here & Now)

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio pauses as he answers a question at a news conference at Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Headquarters in Phoenix, Dec. 18, 2013.

PHOENIX — One of the most-watched racial profiling cases takes a dramatic turn Tuesday. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and four officers are facing contempt of court charges for repeatedly violating U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow’s orders in a longstanding racial profiling lawsuit.

Snow begins overseeing a four-day civil hearing Tuesday to determine the extent of those violations, and what the appropriate sanctions should be.

In addition to Arpaio, MCSO Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre, Lieutenant Joseph Sousa and retired Executive Chief Brian Sands are also facing civil contempt charges.

It's no secret Arpaio did not want the civil contempt hearing to go forward. As part of an unsuccessful bid to reach a settlement and cancel the entire hearing, Arpaio and Sheridan admitted to the civil contempt allegations against them.

Those charges include ignoring Snow’s 2011 pre-trial order to stop detaining immigrants only for being in the country illegally without other criminal charges, withholding video evidence from plaintiffs before the trial, and violating Snow’s directions for how to recover video evidence from deputies.

“The confession that Arpaio made that he is indeed guilty of civil contempt of court is extraordinary, it is just extraordinary,” said Tom Irvine, a Phoenix attorney who has had his share of clashes with the sheriff.

Arpaio has spent the last decade building a national reputation for being tough on immigration. And for being unapologetic about those policies. But in recent weeks he’s struck a new tone.

As part of their proposed settlement, Arpaio and Sheridan offered a long list of punishments they would agree to, including personally donating a total of $100,000 to a Latino civil rights organization.

No one from the sheriff’s office would comment for this story, but Irvine has a theory about Arpaio’s strategy.

“Everybody could say well he has turned over a new leaf,” Irvine said. “But most people, including me, believe that he is trying to stop the evidence from being presented in public.”

That evidence could address whether the sheriff and his staff deliberately violated the judge’s orders. For example, when the sheriff’s leadership never told deputies about Snow’s 2011 order to halt immigration arrests.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the plaintiffs in the racial profiling case, have said they expect evidence to come out in the hearing that will reveal “intentional” and “extended” violations of the court’s orders.  

Sands has already submitted allegations into the court record that speak to some of the details of how the sheriff’s office handled Snow’s 2011 order.

In Sands’ filing he claims he suggested all the deputies should be informed about Snow's order, but that Arpaio only wanted to tell the immigration squad, known as the Human Smuggling Unit.

Sands retired in 2013 and wrote a highly critical e-book about Arpaio. He has retained separate civil attorneys in this case from the rest of the defendants.

In addition, details could surface in the hearing about misconduct by the Human Smuggling Unit, which has since been disbanded. There’s evidence some deputies once assigned to the unit routinely seized personal items, including IDs and license plates, and never entered them into evidence.

Many details about MCSO’s violations of Snow’s orders only came to light after the arrest last May of a former HSU member, Deputy Ramon "Charley" Armendariz.

In a sealed hearing in May, lawyers for the sheriff’s office revealed to the court that a strange collection of items were discovered in Armendariz’s garage. Among them, hundreds of hours of video footage of Armendariz making traffic stops, along with a large collection of IDs and license plates.

Those items provoked questions of whether Armendariz had been shaking down immigrants. Drugs and an illegal weapon were also found in Armendariz’s garage, which was the cause for his arrest.

Armendariz killed himself just days after he was arraigned and released from jail. But his arrest sparked a series of events that led to this week’s contempt hearing:

• The videos Armendariz recorded revealed to the court that it was common for HSU members to record traffic stop videos. But MCSO had failed to turn over video and audio recordings of traffic stops when plaintiffs had requested that evidence before the trial. That violation of discovery rules is a topic in the contempt hearing.

• After the court became aware that deputies were personally storing their own videos of traffic stops, Snow gave the sheriff’s office specific orders for how to quietly retrieve those videos before deputies could be tempted to destroy the evidence. But MCSO failed to follow Snow’s instructions. Sheridan admitted he ordered a deputy chief to send out an email alerting supervisors about the plan to recover the videos. That violation is a topic in the contempt hearing.

• MCSO’s review of the recovered video footage revealed a 2012 stop where Armendariz apparently detained a group of immigrants solely on suspicion they did not have legal status in the country, which was after Snow’s 2011 order enjoining that activity. MCSO's violation of Snow’s 2011 order is a topic in the contempt hearing.

Depending on what is learned in the hearing, Snow could refer the case to a federal prosecutor to pursue criminal contempt charges against the sheriff and the four others.

“The possibility of incarceration in a criminal contempt proceeding is very real,” said Paul Charlton, the former U.S. Attorney for Arizona. “And I suspect that is why Joe Arpaio is working so diligently right now to accept responsibility and avoid having to face that risk.”

For the civil penalties, the judge could order more oversight of the sheriff’s office as well as damages to the immigrants who were wrongfully detained in violation of Snow’s 2011 order.

Normally Maricopa County would pay legal settlements and fees on the sheriff’s behalf. But Snow has said he wants to see Arpaio pay a portion of the sanctions out of his own pocket.

Steve Gallardo, the lone Democrat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, doesn’t want the county to have to pay a cent for Arpaio’s contempt issues.

“Enough is enough. It is time for us to stop bailing out the sheriff,” Gallardo said.

Gallardo says county taxpayers’ money should be going to other things, like roads and homeless shelters, not Arpaio’s mistakes.

Earlier this month the county paid a $3.5 million settlement to a child rape victim in El Mirage, Ariz., after the sheriff’s office failed to investigate her case.

The county has so far spent almost $7 million in legal fees in this ongoing racial profiling case. Because the plaintiffs prevailed in 2013 when Snow ruled the sheriff’s office had systematically racially profiled Latino motorists, the county had to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees. Much of Snow’s 2013 ruling was upheld last week by the 9 th U.S. District Court of Appeals.

There is also the cost of all of the changes Snow ordered the sheriff’s office must do to prevent profiling. According to budget records from October, the sheriff’s office estimated that between fiscal years 2014 and 2016, it would cost some $37.8 million to comply with the judge’s order, including expenses for an independent monitor, new training and equipment.

More recent estimates were not provided by the sheriff's office, though some of the figures have changed since then. For example, MCSO has opted to purchase less-expensive body cameras rather than vehicle cameras to comply with the order.

On top of that, there is another $4.7 million the county has spent defending the sheriff in a separate lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice that alleges discrimination against Latinos.

“If [the sheriff] wants to ignore a federal court order, taxpayers should not have to pay for it,” Gallardo said. “He should be paying for it.”

Gallardo’s colleagues on the Board of Supervisors have mostly remained quiet on the issue.

“This is a multifaceted issue that is ongoing for the MCSO and Maricopa County,” the board’s chair, Steve Chucri, said in an email. “We will continue to see the process through as a Board of Supervisors.”

Some of Arpaio’s critics want to see a punishment that goes beyond fines.

Latina activist Lydia Guzman was involved in the racial profiling suit against the sheriff.

“To many folks in the Latino community, justice will be served when they see Arpaio hauled away in handcuffs,” Guzman said. “They want to see him suffer the same thing their family members went through.”

It is unclear how quickly this contempt matter will be wrapped up. Because the sheriff's office failed to provide plaintiffs with all of the requested documents before the hearing, plaintiffs have asked the judge to set a second contempt hearing in June.

Meanwhile Arpaio, who is 82, has pledged to run for a seventh term next year.

Jude Joffe-Block Senior Field Correspondent, Fronteras Desk - Phoenix KJZZ Senior Field Correspondent Jude Joffe-Block got hooked on radio while working as an assitant to a radio reporter in Mexico, and has been happiest wearing headphones and pointing microphones ever since. Joffe-Block began serving KJZZ in October 2010 as a Fronteras: Changing America Senior Field Correspondent based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. She joined the Phoenix newsroom in July 2012. Before joining the Fronteras Desk, she contributed stories on immigration and criminal justice to KALW in San Francisco and multimedia content in both Spanish and English to The Associated Press in Mexico. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and Yale University, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico.