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Judge Refers Sheriff Joe Arpaio For Criminal Contempt Of Court Charges

Paul Atkinson/KJZZ
editorial | staff
Sheriff Joe Arpaio

A federal judge is asking the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and three others for criminal contempt of court.

The ruling comes after the same judge, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow, ruled in Maythat the sheriff had willfully violated court orders in a long-standing racial profiling case.

The judge found Arpaio continued making immigration arrests for 17 months after a court order required him to stop, and that he failed to disclose evidence to the court. The judge has referred Arpaio, Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, Captain Steve Bailey and former sheriff's attorney Michele Iafrate to face criminal contempt charges.

Snow is asking another judge to oversee the criminal trial, and the U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute.

The sheriff’s lawyer Mel McDonald said he was disappointed by the referral, but would fight it.

“We will meet with the U.S. Attorneys and we will convince them not to bring charges not to bring a criminal contempt charge,” McDonald said. “If they bring it, we will go to court and ask for a jury and litigate it to the bitter end, and I believe we will win.”

It will be up U.S. Attorney John Leonardo to decide whether to take on the case, and whether to pursue felony or misdemeanor contempt contempt charges. If Leonardo declines to prosecute, the new judge overseeing the case can choose to appoint an independent prosecutor. 

The ACLU represents plaintiffs in the racial profiling suit. The organization issued a statement from lawyer Cecillia Wang, who is also director of the group's Immigrants' Rights Project.

"A criminal prosecution of Sheriff Arpaio is the right next step for justice to be done," Wang's statement reads. "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."

Friday’s ruling also says the Board of Supervisors also must create a $500,000 fund to compensate people who were wrongfully detained by sheriff’s deputies in violation of court orders.

Friday evening activists and Latino community leaders gathered to voice their response to Snow's actions. They said they planned to pressure the U.S. Attorney's office to prosecute.

"I think this is the beginning of the end for Arpaio," said Lydia Guzman, who helped successfully sue the sheriff's office for discriminating against Latino motorists. "We are glad to see that justice is finally prevailing."

State Sen. Martín Quezada said justice is one step closer for those who have suffered.

Arpaio is running for his seventh term as sheriff.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.