Wrangling begins in contempt trial of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio declined to say whether he would take the witness stand during his criminal contempt trial. (Photo by Tyler Fingert/Cronkite News)

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces criminal contempt charges in federal court. (Photo by Tyler Fingert/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Prosecutors painted former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as a law enforcement leader who disregarded a federal judge’s orders to halt racial profiling of Latino motorists and passengers, while Arpaio’s attorneys said he followed the law “as the law exists” during opening statements in his federal criminal contempt trial.

Arpaio, in his first major public appearance in recent weeks, sat quietly in U.S. District Court as attorneys on both sides of his criminal contempt trial delivered their remarks.

A federal judge initially leveled a civil contempt charge in May 2016, accusing Arpaio of flouting an order a few years earlier to end his controversial program of stopping drivers based solely on the suspicion they were undocumented immigrants. Arpaio, Maricopa’s sheriff for 24 years, was referred for criminal charges in October, two weeks before the November election, which was won by Paul Penzone.

At least 170 undocumented immigrants were transferred to federal authorities for 17 months despite a federal judge’s order, prosecutor Victor Salgado said.

“He thought he would get away with it,” Salgado said.

Defense attorney Dennis Wilenchik said it was outrageous to say Arpaio deliberately defied a judge’s order.

“He followed the law as the law exists,” Wilenchik said.

Outside the court during a lunch break, Arpaio lawyer Mark Goldman said the former sheriff is not guilty of civil or criminal contempt.

“I believe that given the evidence that we will present and cross examination of the government’s witnesses will show that the sheriff was never in contempt of any order, let alone any criminal contempt,” Goldman told reporters.

Arpaio declined to comment on whether he will testify during the trial.

“I got great lawyers,” he said outside the courthouse.