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Why Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's fate could hang on a single word

Why Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's fate could hang on a single word
Maricopa Country Sheriff Joe Arpaio introduces Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Tucson campaign rally in March. (Ross. D. Franklin / Associated Press)

A single word — "intentionally" — could transform a court case against Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio from civil charges to a criminal prosecution.

In finding Arpaio and three of his top commanders in contempt of court on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow said no fewer than 19 times that the sheriff or his aides had repeatedly and intentionally violated judicial orders to stop profiling Latinos. On May 31, Snow will determine the civil penalties and examine whether Arpaio, the sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, will be referred to Arizona's U.S. attorney for potential criminal charges.

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Arpaio has acknowledged violating Snow's order, but said it was a mistake. In weighing criminal charges, Snow must decide whether Arpaio's violations of his orders were intentional.

In the meantime, the judge had unusually harsh words for Arpaio.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio gives a news conference in Phoenix in July 2010.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio gives a news conference in Phoenix in July 2010.

"The Defendants' unfair, partial, and inequitable application of discipline disproportionally [sic] damaged members of the Plaintiff class," Snow wrote.

In a 2011 civil case brought by Latino drivers against Arpaio and his aides, Snow determined that Arpaio had encouraged his deputies to subject Latino drivers to greater scrutiny during traffic stops than white drivers typically received. He ordered the sheriff to put an end to the practice.

Two years later, Snow found that Arpaio had continued the practice in violation of the order. At a Houston rally the next year, Arpaio told supporters that he had violated the order "out of spite" and had arrested 500 people.

He later said in court filings that he had violated the order unknowingly.

In Friday's ruling, Arpaio was held in contempt on three counts. Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan was found in contempt on two counts, and retired Chief Brian Sands and Lt. Joe Sousa each were found in contempt on one count.

"The Court finds that the Defendants have engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith," Snow wrote. "In their testimony during the evidentiary hearing, Sheriff Arpaio and Chief Deputy Sheridan made multiple intentional misstatements of fact while under oath."

In hearings last year, Arpaio, the octogenarian who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," seemed to wither under questioning, particularly when asked about an effort he had made to investigate the judge.

A lawyer for Arpaio had hired a private investigator to look into comments Snow's wife purportedly made in a restaurant, where an informant claimed she had said the judge didn't want to see Arpaio reelected.

Arpaio apologized to Snow for the investigation, but the sheriff's attorneys also used the incident to argue that Snow was no longer impartial and should recuse himself from the case. Snow declined.

In his contempt ruling, Snow said Arpaio and his aides failed to turn over video evidence to plaintiffs in the civil case, disobeyed orders to gather evidence and continued to profile Latinos.

Snow found that Arpaio hid thousands of pieces of evidence from the plaintiffs and deleted relevant digital evidence kept on hard drives.

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Longtime opponents immediately called for the sheriff to resign.

"Any public official who has been found guilty of racial profiling and ignores the orders of the court cannot be entrusted with the safety and well-being of the community and should step down in shame," the immigrant rights group Puente Arizona said in a statement Friday.

The ACLU, which brought the original case against Arpaio, demanded stricter oversight and transparency from the sheriff's office.

"Strong remedies are needed to protect the community's rights, starting with internal investigations that root out and punish misconduct," said Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "Willing or not, the sheriff will be made to comply with the law."

The ruling Friday was one of Arpaio's most serious defeats, but it doesn't bar him from holding office, and he had already announced his intention to run for a seventh term as sheriff in November.

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Twitter:@nigelduara

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