The Story of a Former Arizona Sheriff’s Conviction of Criminal Contempt



Once a popular politician who was voted out of office last year after 24 years of service, former Sheriff Joe Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt of court by United States District Judge Susan R. Bolton earlier this year. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to six months in jail. Arpaio’s crime: he defied a court order to stop detaining individuals he suspected were undocumented immigrants.

This conviction came largely as a result of the pressure that is placed upon sheriffs as part of the Trump administration’s severe measures on immigration. Local governments are facing threats from the president that federal funds will be withheld unless they cooperate by detaining jail inmates for deportation. This is considered a violation of constitutional rights by immigrant advocates, who have pushed back with lawsuits. The former sheriff’s criminal charge evolved out of a lawsuit that was filed ten years ago for his office’s regular violations of the rights of Latinos. This involved stopping people based on racial profiling, detaining them simply because of suspicions that there were illegal immigrants as well as handing them over to the immigration authorities.

As a response to the suit, G. Murray Snow, another federal district judge, ordered in 2011 that the sheriff stops detaining individuals based on suspected immigrant status without prior evidence of broken state law. This was upheld by an appeals court as well as reinforced with other orders by Judge Snow.

Despite several court rulings, Arpaio publicly and repeatedly insisted that his actions were legal and that he would not stop – advocates confirmed that detentions continued. As such, according to Judge Bolton, the sheriff deliberately violated the 2011 court order. She wrote that, “Not only did Defendant abdicate responsibility, he announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise.”

However, Arpaio is not without support. Advocates of stricter immigration enforcement support the former sheriff. According to the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Dan Stein, Arpaio’s actions are warranted by President Trump’s election.

“Clearly Joe Arpaio won the war, even though he lost this particular battle,” Mr. Stein said. “Like any good American citizen, he recognized his obligation and was willing to pay the price for a form of civil disobedience.”

According to one of Arpaio’s lawyers, Jack Wilenchik, Judge Snow’s 2011 order “was not clear and definite, and Judge Bolton did not adequately address that.” Furthermore, by denying the former sheriff a trial by jury, he deems that Judge Bolton had also violated Arpaio’s rights.

On the other hand, according to Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and one of the lawyers in the suit against Arpaio, the sheriff’s verdict “is a vindication for all the victims of his illegal stops and detentions whose constitutional rights were violated.”

In 2013, resonant of the findings of a 2011 Justice Department report, Judge Snow’s ruling that the former sheriff’s office had systematically violated the rights of Latinos resulted in him losing the case.

In 2015, after Judge Snow found Arpaio in civil contempt of court for his violation of the initial order, prosecutors charged him with criminal contempt. The former sheriff refutes that he had deliberately disobeyed the court and blamed his subordinates for any illegal actions. However, based on evidence that Arpaio had understood the order as well as on the repeated claims that he would not change, Judge Bolton dismissed the former sheriff’s claims and had scheduled sentencing for October 5.

Arpaio served his term as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes the city of Phoenix. His national reputation was built upon the harsh conditions that he upheld in his county jail as well as for his campaign against undocumented immigrants. Once referring to himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” Arpaio’s actions include making inmates wear pink underwear and serving inedible food to prisoners. He also detained undocumented immigrants past their court-ordered release dates on a regular basis to make sure they are picked up by immigration agents. He also aimed to investigate former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. His legal troubles, such as abuse of his authority to investigate political opponents, resulted in Arizona’s largest financial burden for the county.

The former sheriff was also involved in a 2007 arrest of Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, two Village Voice Media Executives. This was a reaction to the Phoenix New Times stories that exposed his misdeeds, reporting on the former sheriff’s patriarchal role in supporting anti-Mexican fear-mongering and political posturing in Arizona. The newspaper also wrote about financial irregularities and the mismanagement in the sheriff’s office, on retaliatory abuses of power against any of the sheriff’s critics, on substandard health conditions in Arpaio’s jails including mistreatment and deaths of jail inmates as well as his systematic persecution, racial profiling and unconstitutional detention of Latinos.

Lacey and Larkin were taken into custody for publishing coverage that revealed that grand jury subpoenas, issued by Arpaio’s allies, targeted the paper’s writers, editors and readers. In other words, Lacey and Larkin were pointing out a severe insult to the United States Constitution. However, following a loud national outcry, charges against the two executives were quickly dropped. It later became known that the grand jury warrants were counterfeit and issued illegally. Following a 5-year court battle, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that the Lacey and Larkin were arrested without probably cause, making way for a $3.7 million settlement paid to the two by Maricopa County in 2013.

Lacey and Larkin used the $3.75 million to establish the Lacey & Larkin Frontera Fund that focuses on helping the Hispanic community that has faced racial and civil rights difficulties in Arizona.  The Fund dollars are directed at worthy nonprofit groups that advocate for Hispanic civil rights and causes.

Lacey and Larkin teamed up in 1972 to lead the Phoenix New Times, which at the time was a young campus weekly publication as a response to the largely ultra-conservative local media’s coverage of student antiwar protests. Largely covering social and political issues, the paper eventually grew its audience as well as popularity among the nation’s growing alternative newspapers.

The paper eventually expanded and became known as Village Voice Media Holdings, and it quickly formed a reputation for long-form investigative reporting, magazine-style feature writing, and sophisticated coverage of music, food, film, arts, and local events. This is largely due to Lacey and Larkin consistent commitment to the First Amendment in their writing and publications. The company was eventually sold to longtime executives and had a monthly following of 9 million print readers and 56 million online viewers. It received the Pulitzer Prize, which was among the hundreds of journalistic honors it had collected over the years.


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