A judge found the longtime sheriff of metro Phoenix in contempt of court Friday for disobeying his orders in a racial profiling case, bringing the lawman who calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff" a step closer to a possible criminal contempt case that could expose him to fines and even jail time.
The ruling Friday marked one of the biggest legal defeats in the six-term career of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known for cracking down on illegal immigration, and was expected to lead to greater court oversight of his office. A hearing will be held May 31 to examine whether he will face a criminal contempt case.
Two months ago, Arpaio made national news by showering his support on Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, then campaigning for him ahead of Arizona's primary. Trump even invoked Arpaio's name in his calls for tougher immigration enforcement.
The 83-year-old Arpaio, who is seeking a seventh term this year, and three of his top aides "have demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of this court, as well as an intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct," U.S. District Judge Murray Snow wrote in a 162-page ruling.
"We have begun our reading and analysis of this lengthy document, and expect to file a responsive memorandum," attorneys for the sheriff's office said in a statement late Friday afternoon. "Despite disagreeing with some of the Court's findings, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office will continue to work with the court-appointed monitor, the ACLU and plaintiffs to comply with the court's orders, as it has since January 2014."
Snow ruled three years ago that Arpaio's officers systematically racially profiled Latinos in regular traffic stops and immigration patrols. He ordered a sweeping overhaul of the agency, including making patrol officers wear body cameras and conducting more training to ensure officers aren't making unconstitutional traffic stops.
Arpaio has acknowledged violating Snow's orders, including letting deputies conduct his signature immigration patrols 18 months after the judge barred them.
The civil contempt finding doesn't disqualify Arpaio from holding office. It's unclear whether a criminal contempt finding would prevent him from serving as sheriff. A felony contempt conviction would force him from office, but the judge has the option of recommending either a misdemeanor or felony contempt case.
The judge said Friday that Arpaio "engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty and bad faith" related to those who sued over the racial profiling and "made multiple intentional misstatements of fact" while testifying during a hearing.
Snow is expected to require Maricopa County to compensate Latinos who were illegally detained during the 18 months that Arpaio's office violated the prohibition on its immigration patrols. The county the sheriff polices has already paid out $41 million over the past eight years in the case, and taxpayers will have to pick up an additional $13 million over the next year.
Lawyers who pressed the case against Arpaio say at least 190 people were pulled over in violation of the order to stop immigration patrols, though they contend the number of victims is likely much higher. They said Arpaio violated the order because he wanted to look tough on immigration during a difficult 2012 election and later used his powerful position to insulate himself from the consequences of his decision.
One of those attorneys, Cecillia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Arpaio's defiance must end.
"Strong remedies are needed to protect the community's rights, starting with internal investigations that root out misconduct," she said. "Willing or not, the sheriff will be made to comply with the law."
An internal investigation into the violation didn't find any policy infractions and didn't result in discipline against any employees, even though Arpaio's top aide acknowledged defying the order. The judge found Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan in contempt and that he lied under oath.
The contempt case also examined a secret investigation by the sheriff's office that opponents say was intended to discredit Snow. Arpaio has been accused of retaliating against his critics in the past but vigorously denied investigating the judge.
He insists the investigation examined claims that someone had hacked the bank information of thousands of people. Snow has said the investigation tried to prove a "bogus conspiracy" between him and the U.S. Justice Department, which was pursuing a separate civil rights lawsuit against Arpaio.
The sheriff had testified that others in his office ran the investigation. Snow said the inquiry was relevant to the contempt case because it raises questions about whether Arpaio testified truthfully about it.