Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio Contempt-Of-Court Trial Begins In Phoenix

By Jude Joffe-Block
Published: Monday, June 26, 2017 - 6:05am
Updated: Monday, June 26, 2017 - 2:34pm

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Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Paul Atkinson/KJZZ
Joe Arpaio

For 24 years, Joe Arpaio was Maricopa County's tough talking sheriff, famous for cracking down on illegal immigration.

On Monday, a criminal trial begins in downtown Phoenix in which the 85-year-old former sheriff is accused of ignoring a federal judge’s order to curtail the crackdown. Some in the Latino community are happy to see the tables turned on him.

About a decade ago Joe Arpaio started instructing his deputies to make traffic stops and detain any unauthorized immigrants they encountered. Then they’d turn the immigrants over to federal agents for deportation.

"These immigration raids tore our neighborhood apart," said Lydia Guzman, an activist who helped sue Arpaio over those tactics.

She spoke at a crowded Mexican restaurant, not far from where many of Arpaio’s operations took place.

"I'm here in the heart of the Hispanic community and I see different families with kids I see you know people enjoying themselves. This is what it should have been all along. Not people living in and fear and trying to hide," she said.

In 2011, a federal judge told Arpaio he could not detain immigrants just because they lacked legal status, since that job is primarily for federal agents. Yet for about 18 months, Arpaio’s deputies violated the order. They kept arresting unauthorized immigrants and dropping them off with Border Patrol.

Maricopa County
(Photo courtesy of Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)
In 2011, a federal judge told Arpaio the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office could not detain immigrants just because they lacked legal status.

When the judge found out years later, he found Arpaio in civil contempt of court. Then, last fall, under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department decided to criminally prosecute Arpaio for disobeying the judge.

"The timing of this prosecution is problematic. It was filed only two weeks before his election," said Jack Wilenchik, one of Arpaio’s lawyers.

Arpaio’s supporters believe this criminal case is really about politics — Democrats trying to hurt a Republican sheriff. Arpaio’s fans hoped the Trump administration would drop the criminal case. But even though President Donald Trump is friendly with Arpaio and the two see eye to eye on immigration, prosecutors are moving forward.

Wilenchik said the case is hypocritical.

"The federal government is prosecuting him for doing something that the federal government told him to do," he said. "Border patrol has been telling local law enforcement forever to call them if they encounter an illegal alien."

The bench trial is expected to last eight days. If Arpaio is convicted, he faces a fine or up to six months in prison.

Guzman sees this as a chance to hold Arpaio accountable.

"His legend will be that he destroyed our community and he got busted for it," she said.

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