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Joe Arpaio, ‘America’s toughest sheriff,’ found in contempt of court in racial profiling case

Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix.
(Associated Press)

A federal judge in Arizona has ruled that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio intentionally violated the judge’s orders to end profiling of Latinos 19 times, a decision that raises the possibility he could face criminal charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow found Arpaio and three of his top aides in contempt of court on Friday and wrote in his decision that Arpaio was less than truthful in a series of hearings last year.

“The Court finds that the Defendants have engaged in  multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith,” Snow wrote.

A hearing is scheduled May 31 to determine the civil penalties and examine whether Arpaio will face a criminal contempt case.

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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.

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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.

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In hearings last year, 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 Arpaio’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.

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.

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

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.

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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.

nigel.duara@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

7:48 p.m.: This story was updated with staff copy.

This story was originally posted at 1:23 p.m.


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