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Judge Seeks Criminal Charges Against Sheriff Joe Arpaio In Profiling Case


A federal judge in Phoenix wants Sheriff Joe Arpaio to face criminal charges for violating court orders in a racial profiling case. The case is now in the hands of federal prosecutors who are deciding whether to take legal action against the six-term sheriff. Jude Joffe-Block reports from member station KJZZ.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: In May, Federal Judge Murray Snow found Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in civil contempt of court for repeatedly disobeying court orders. Now the judge has decided Arpaio's actions were so severe he should face criminal contempt charges. Late Friday, the judge asked the U.S. attorney to prosecute the elected sheriff and three of his aides.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris studies policing and can't think of another case like this one.

DAVID HARRIS: It is just not a common thing at all for a court to use the criminal contempt powers and rarer still for a court to order criminal contempt charges against elected officials.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Harris says this situation is rare but so are the facts in this case. Judge Snow began overseeing reforms at the sheriff's office three years ago after finding Arpaio's deputies discriminated against Latinos. But the sheriff and his staff didn't follow orders. They kept making immigration arrests for over a year after the judge forbade it.

They withheld evidence. The judge even said they lied to his face. Harris says the criminal referral is a sign of the judge's frustration.

HARRIS: The court must feel, you know, how else do I get this guy's attention? How else do I get him to start following the court's orders instead of treating them like they're options?

JOFFE-BLOCK: A different judge has already been assigned to oversee the criminal case against the sheriff. But first, federal prosecutors have to decide if they want to take it on. Arpaio's lawyer Mel McDonald says he's disappointed with the judge's criminal referral.

MEL MCDONALD: We will meet with the U.S. Attorney's Office and try to convince them not to bring a criminal contempt charge.

JOFFE-BLOCK: If federal prosecutors decline this case, the new judge can assign a special prosecutor. The charge could be a misdemeanor or a felony and the penalty could be prison time. McDonald says if a trial does go forward...

MCDONALD: We will ask for a jury, and we will litigate it to the bitter end. And I believe we'll win.

LYDIA GUZMAN: Arpaio's problems have only just begun. And I think this is the beginning of the end for Arpaio.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Lydia Guzman is a Latina activist who helped successfully sue Arpaio for racial profiling, which is how this case began. Guzman said the Latino community was dismayed when Arpaio ignored court orders and kept making immigration arrests.

GUZMAN: When someone violates a court order, there's going to be consequences. And Arpaio is going to face these consequences.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Longtime civil rights activist and politician Alfredo Gutierrez said he's still disappointed the Justice Department closed an earlier criminal investigation against Arpaio four years ago. He wants prosecutors to follow through this time.

ALFREDO GUTIERREZ: Our role now is not to enjoy this moment for very long...

JOFFE-BLOCK: Gutierrez says it's time to get to work.

GUTIERREZ: ...And pressure those who can put this man in jail.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Meanwhile, 84-year-old Arpaio is in the midst of a tough re-election campaign. Next week, he faces off against three challengers in the Republican primary. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jude Joffe-Block