The U.S. Department of Justice officials have opted to pursue a criminal contempt charge against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for violating a federal court’s orders in a racial-profiling case.
The move has few precedents in U.S. history, as prosecutors endorsed a federal judge’s findings that the lawman intentionally violated the judge’s orders.
Arpaio has not yet officially been charged. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton asked the federal government to write an order to show cause, by Wednesday, for her to sign. That will serve as a charging document for the case to go forward against Arpaio only.
DOJ attorney John Keller said the government will continue to investigate additional allegations of Arpaio and three aides for concealing evidence–and therefore obstruction of justice–but will not proceed with the prosecution at this time.
Keller said the statute of limitations may have run out for other criminal contempt allegations against Arpaio and three aides.
Bolton is not sure, and asked for a pause on the statute-of-limitations clock for all sides to discuss that issue.
In August, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow referred Arpaio, Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, Capt. Steve Bailey and defense attorney Michele Iafrate to be charged with criminal contempt of court.
Arpaio’s charge stems from a December 2011 federal court order that barred his agency from enforcing federal immigration law. It is alleged that his deputies continued to do so, however, for at least 18 months thereafter.
Largely because of Arpaio’s age–he is 84–Bolton ruled that a sentencing cap of six months is appropriate on the contempt charge, virtually defining the crime as a misdemeanor.
A tentative date is set for Dec. 6. Arpaio’s attorney asked for a jury trial.
In May 2013, Snow found that Arpaio’s law-enforcement practices illegally targeted Latinos. The federal judge ordered sweeping reforms for the office, but for the three years since, the case has continued to attract controversy.
While Arpaio and his cohorts admitted violating three of Snow’s orders, they insisted the missteps were unintentional. By law, intent could mean the difference between civil and criminal contempt.
Snow found cause for both.
In May, Snow found Arpaio and three of his aides in civil contempt for ignoring the three orders. The order was monumental though not unexpected, as Arpaio and Sheridan already had admitted as much.
It wasn’t until August that Snow dealt the blow Arpaio and his attorneys had feared. Arpaio and Sheridan would be referred for charges of criminal contempt as well as perjury, for misstatements made on the stand. Bailey and Michele Iafrate, Arpaio’s former defense attorney, also were referred for criminal prosecution, but only for contempt allegations.
Bailey and Iafrate are accused of trying to withhold evidence that was ordered to be turned over to the court.