PHOENIX – Two weeks before the toughest election in his 24-year career, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was charged Tuesday with criminal contempt of court.
If found guilty, the 84-year-old sheriff could face up to six months of jail time. But court observers predict the federal trial could drag on for months. In the meantime, if elected to a seventh term, Arpaio would continue to hold office despite the criminal charge.
Arpaio’s foes are guardedly optimistic about the new charge, which stems from “willfully disobeying” a federal judge’s orders in an ongoing civil class action case in which Arpaio was found guilty of racial profiling of Latino drivers and passengers. But Arpaio’s supporters say he’s the victim of a political smear in a heated election, and his criminal attorney is gearing up for a fierce battle.
Arpaio, through a spokesperson, declined comment. His spokesperson referred Cronkite News to Mel McDonald, Arpaio’s criminal attorney, for comment.
“We think it never should have been referred to criminal contempt,” McDonald told Cronkite News. “But now that it is, we’re preparing to go to war.”
McDonald said the contempt charges could have been politically motivated. “They get out the day before early balloting and announce they’re gonna bring criminal charges,” McDonald said in a phone interview. “They could have waited for another four weeks. There’s nothing that’s rushed the judgment.”
McDonald said the hearing date is set for Dec. 6, but said he plans to ask for an extension. He said legal fees for Arpaio’s criminal defense are privately funded, and “not one dime” of taxpayer money will pay for the defense attorneys.
The case will fortify both Arpaio’s supporters and his detractors, he said.
“It’s definitely an action that arms both camps,” McDonald said. “I don’t think it’s helpful in any way to the sheriff and I’m disappointed that they didn’t wait ‘til after the election.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is prosecuting the federal criminal contempt case, declined comment.
Some Latino activists who have long opposed Arpaio and his hardline immigration stance view the contempt charge as a positive move, but won’t be happy until the sheriff no longer holds office.
Viri Hernandez, executive director of the Center for Neighborhood Leadership and a board member of Bazta Arpaio, a group that is seeking to oust Arpaio in this election, said volunteers have knocked on doors seeking to educate voters, especially Latino, Millennial and first-time voters, about the issues surrounding Arpaio.
Bazta Arpaio claims it recently held the largest canvass against Arpaio in state history and plans to push a final voter mobilization effort between now and the election.
Hernandez said it was a relief to see the justice department move in the right direction, but it did not replace the years of injustices people had experienced at the hands of Arpaio. She said the community has long viewed Arpaio as “guilty” and “a criminal.”
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents clients in the ongoing civil racial profiling case against Arpaio, would not comment on the new criminal charge, deferring to an Oct. 11 press release.
In that press release, Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project, said Arpaio’s violation of court orders was “willful and deliberate and therefore criminal in nature.”
Daniel Ortega Jr., a civil-rights and immigration attorney who has followed Arpaio’s legal battles closely, said that the criminal contempt charge levied against Arpaio are, “just the beginning,” but it represents a step in the right direction.
Arpaio, Ortega said, has caused a lot of physical, mental and economic grief to many county residents. Ortega said justice would also be partially served if Arpaio is defeated in the election.
A trial is set for Dec. 6, but Ortega doesn’t believe the trial will begin in December. Criminal court cases follow procedures that require certain elements be completed by certain deadlines that, according to Ortega, attorneys won’t be ready to meet.
There is some speculation that Arpaio could have more serious charges levied against him, such as obstruction of justice, but Ortega says it is up to the justice department to file such charges against Arpaio.
An October Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll showed Arpaio, a Republican, trailing Democratic sheriff candidate Paul Penzone by almost 15 points. The poll was taken after the justice department announced it would pursue criminal charges against the sheriff.
Stacy Pearson, Penzone’s campaign manager, said the charges came as no surprise to the Penzone team.
Phoenix resident Barb Heller, 59, a longtime Arpaio fan, said the federal judge in the criminal case “does not have the authority to make that kind of an order.” She viewed the criminal charge as unconstitutional.
“The federal government has absolutely nothing to do with this,” Heller said.