‘Toughest sheriff’ in US found guilty of criminal contempt

Joe Arpaio (85) defied order not to detain suspected unauthorised immigrants

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona has been described as 'America's Toughest Sheriff'. He makes inmates at his jail, Tent City, sleep in tents where temperatures in the Phoenix heat reach the high 40s. Video: Simon Carswell


A former US sheriff committed a crime by defying a court order to stop detaining suspected unauthorised immigrants, a judge ruled Monday.

It was the latest rebuke for Joe Arpaio, a once-popular politician who was voted out of office last year.

US District Judge Susan R. Bolton found the 85-year-old guilty of criminal contempt of court, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Lawyers for Arpaio, who used to had boast about being “America’s toughest sheriff”, said he would appeal.

The conviction comes as sheriffs are under pressure to play a major role in the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown. The president has threatened to withhold federal funds from local governments that do not cooperate by holding jail inmates for deportation, and immigrant advocates have pushed back with lawsuits charging that such detentions violate constitutional rights.

Arpaio served for 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, building a national reputation for harsh conditions in his county jail, and for his campaign against unauthorised immigrants.

The criminal charge grew out of a lawsuit filed a decade ago charging that the sheriff’s office regularly violated the rights of Latinos, stopping people based on racial profiling, detaining them based solely on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally, and turning them over to immigration authorities.

No evidence

Hearing the suit, another federal district judge, G. Murray Snow, ordered the sheriff in 2011 to halt detention based solely on suspicion of a person’s immigration status, when there was no evidence that a state law had been broken. An appeals court upheld that ruling, and Judge Snow later reinforced it with other orders.

But Arpaio insisted, publicly and repeatedly, that his office’s practices were legal and would not change, and advocates said the detentions continued. On Monday, Judge Bolton ruled that Arpaio had willfully violated the 2011 court order.

“Not only did the 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,” she wrote.

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

Some supporters of stricter immigration enforcement rallied behind Arpaio.

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the election of president Donald Trump had vindicated Arpaio’s policies.

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


Jack Wilenchik, one of Arpaio’s lawyers, said Snow’s 2011 order “was not clear and definite, and Bolton did not adequately address that.” He added that Judge Bolton had also violated Arpaio’s rights by denying him a trial by jury.

The former sheriff lost the civil case in 2013, when the court ruled that his office had systematically violated the rights of Latinos, echoing the findings of a Justice Department report from 2011.

In 2015, Judge Snow found Arpaio in civil contempt of court for violating the initial order, and prosecutors charged him with criminal contempt. Arpaio maintained in both cases that he had not willfully defied the court, and that any violations were committed by his underlings.

He was also accused several times of abusing his authority to investigate political opponents, and his legal troubles caused mounting bills for the county, Arizona’s largest. Last year, frustration with his headline-grabbing tactics turned into a defeat at the polls.

New York Times