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Updated May 3, 2015 - 12:15 pm

Legally Speaking: A complete breakdown of the case against Sheriff Arpaio

These past couple weeks have shown us a new side of America’s toughest sheriff, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Arpaio himself has been at the center of a civil contempt hearing and now appears to be at the center of the wrath of a federal district judge. It seems to many that the sheriff has never had to answer to anyone for his controversial and assertive actions, but his streak of defiance may soon come to end. U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow could be the one who causes it.

Several years back, a civil rights lawsuit was filed against Arpaio and MCSO. The lawsuit included allegations that MCSO was systematically racially profiling Latinos.

As part of that lawsuit, Judge Snow issued an order that required Arpaio and MCSO to stop the highly controversial and popular practice of arresting persons simply because they appeared to be illegal aliens.

Civil contempt hearing

After learning the sheriff and MCSO were blatantly ignoring his orders and failing to disclose information, Judge Snow scheduled a civil contempt hearing against Sheriff Arpaio and several of his aides. The hearing is to determine if they should be held in contempt for violating Judge Snow’s order barring immigration patrols.

The blatant disregard of the judge’s order to stop was ignored for no less than 18 months, possibly because Arpaio did not inform his deputies of the order and the requirement to stop the patrols, among other things.

What exactly is a civil contempt hearing and what can happen? A hearing of this nature is one where the court investigates to see if a person or entity has failed to comply with a court order. If the court determines that an order has not been complied with, it can punish the offending party with fines and other sanctions.

In this case, if Judge Snow wants to drop the hammer and include jail time, then he will refer Sheriff Joe to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for criminal contempt prosecution.

Prior to the commencement of the contempt hearing, Sheriff Arpaio and his top aide Jerry Sheridan offered to pay $100,000 to a civil rights charity, out of their own personal pockets, in an attempt to convince the Judge to cancel the hearing.

In response, Judge Snow said it was an adequate personal penalty but it did not resolve the entire case and thus ordered the hearing continue as planned. Think of what would it would have said had the judge or the other side (the plaintiff is the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona) agreed to the payment. Many could have concluded that both the judge and the plaintiff could be bought — not good.

Sheriff admits his failure to follow the order

Going into the hearing the sheriff came out and admitted that both he and MCSO failed to comply with the judge’s order to stop enforcing federal immigration law, turn over traffic stop videos in the underlying lawsuit and to quietly gather the relevant recordings. The judge could have held the sheriff and MCSO in contempt with those admissions, but he decided more needed to happen, thus, the hearing.

What surprised me and made me shake my head was what the judge noted. He stated taxpayers have already paid roughly $6.8 million in attorneys fees for the lawsuit and another $2.6 million to pay the court staff whose job it was to oversee MCSO and its actions in regard to the suit and order. People were up in arms, including myself, about how much it cost to prosecute and defend Jodi Arias and that was less than half of this!

Testimony that surprises everyone

Testimony was elicited from Lt. Brett Palmer that Sheriff Arpaio ordered him to directly defy Judge Snow’s order and that he believed he was ordered to do so because to follow the order would be “contrary to the goals and objectives of the sheriff.” It was not looking good for Arpaio. Things continued to go downhill when the sheriff himself took the stand to testify.

The common tactic of pushing the blame onto someone else and citing ignorance was employed by the sheriff at times. With no warning the judge surprised not only Sheriff Arpaio but everyone else when he asked him if he had investigated the judge’s wife. To his credit, Arpaio admitted it. Not. Good.

Granted, the sheriff and his legal team provided a somewhat plausible explanation; however, information like this is never positive for the person facing contempt charges.

This was definitely the largest development in the case, but it was not the last. For Sheriff Arpaio, the hits just kept coming and are likely not finished yet. After Sheridan took the stand and stated there was no investigation, a key player of the legal team had to file a motion to withdraw.

Tim Casey, one of the lead attorneys for both Sheriff Arpaio and MCSO had to ask the court for permission to withdraw as counsel. With Arpaio’s testimony admitting the investigation into the judge’ wife and another witness stating there was no investigation of the sort, Casey might have to testify as to what really happened.

This puts him in the role of a witness. An attorney, ethically speaking, should never be a witness in their current client’s case. As such, it appears Casey did the proper thing and is attempting to be excused.

What happens next

The civil contempt hearing has not concluded and likely will not anytime soon. Not only did one of Sheriff Arpaio’s attorneys request to be removed, his legal team also filed a motion to continue the proceedings. The request to press pause is due to the judge’s line of questioning and the subsequent order to provide various documents.

MCSO’s legal team needs time to regroup, strategize and review what has happened thus far. To be fair, it is appropriate to allow the team time to do this. A hearing, in any court, should be about uncovering the truth. It should never be about railroading someone or surprising them with previously undisclosed information.

If Sheriff Arpaio and MCSO are going to be held accountable for doing something improper and violating an order, then that holding should be based on the truth and facts, not surprise and subterfuge. We all know two wrongs do not make a right.

Although federal judges are generally sticklers with time and do not like to grant long continuances, that could be what happens in this case. With the sheriff’s admissions alone the court could find him in contempt, so it will be interesting to see what else comes out in the eventual continuation of the hearing.

One more thing. It is questionable if Judge Snow will continue as judge. It was clear he was not happy with Sheriff Arpaio and the investigation of his wife, exemplified by his questioning and the fact he chose to not disclose his intentions.

Granted, most would not be happy with someone who blatantly ignored their orders and then investigated their family. However, the judge’s choice of action could result in him being removed from the case due to a conflict of interest or an appearance of impropriety. Some say this would have been unexpected a month ago, however, others believe this was all part of the sheriff’s plan to get rid of a judge who ruled against him.

Will he be held to answer? If history tells us anything then my money is on Sheriff Arpaio and MCSO sailing through this with little more than a scratch.


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