How Arpaio Garnered a Contempt Citation

President Trump’s pardon of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is significant because it thwarts the power to the courts to enforce orders. Criminal contempt is an important means for a court to vindicate its authority by punishing intentional disregard of its authority.

Here is what Arpaio did to merit the court’s contempt citation:

In 2007, a retired school teacher, a married couple and the owner of a family business in Phoenix , filed a class action against the sheriff’s office claiming their constitutional rights were being routinely violated.  All the plaintiffs are Latino and all are American citizens.

They accused Arpaio of directing his office to launch massive so-called “crime suppression sweeps” by claiming he had the authority of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  He used deputies and “volunteer posse members” to target Latinos for traffic stops, searches, questioning and baseless arrests, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint accused Arpaio of engaging in racial profiling by widespread, day-to-day targeting of Latinos in autos, even when parked, and without suspicion of any criminal conduct for stops to question their citizenship.

ICE indicated its deal with Arpiao was part of a program to allow local law enforcement to hold potentially undocumented aliens incidental to a lawful arrest – not as part of local sweeps looking for aliens.

Latino drivers or those simply riding in a car could be searched, interrogated and subject to arrest and further detention, while Caucasian drivers and passengers were stopped at much lower rates, the suit alleged.

One plaintiff, Manuel Ortega Melendres, was a passenger in a car driven by a Caucasian who was stopped by deputies in 2007. Ortaga produced a valid U.S. visa but was searched and handcuffed for 40 minutes before being taken to jail and held four hours. He was not read his Miranda rights, was not allowed to make a phone call and was not told if he was being charged with a crime. He was then driven to an ICE office, still handcuffed, and held again, until an ICE agent looked at his visa documents and said they were “good” and released Ortega. He had been detained a total of nine hours.

The lawsuit alleged constitutional violation of equal protection rights and right against unreasonable searches as well as Arizona state Constitutional violations.

Contempt Order

Ultimately, the court imposed an injunction in 2011 ordering Arpaio and his deputies to cease the sweeps, finding they amounted to racial profiling. It ordered Arpaio not to try to enforce federal immigration law or detaining people they simply believed to be undocumented when there was no other state charge. But the traffic stops continue, for 17 months.

The federal appeals court upheld the injunction in 2012.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow, an appointee of President George W. Bush, issued five different court orders in failed attempts to get Arpaio to comply.

Snow also found that Arpaio lied to his own lawyers by telling th4em he had been directed by federal agencies to turn over people he stopped. And that in 2015 his department hid 50 hard drives with evidence that a court monitor sought in the case, until they were discovered by the monitor in a property locker. They had been assigned a number “designed to shield their disclosure,” Snow wrote.

Then in August of 2016, Snow ordered that Arpaio and his chief deputy of Gerard Sheridan face criminal contempt proceedings. Snow’s order points out that Arpaio admitted he continued to stop and detain people based on their race and frequently arrested and delivered them to ICE even when there were no state charges against them.

“Sheriff Arpaio did so based on the notoriety he received for, and the campaign donations he received because of, his immigration enforcement activity,” Snow wrote.

When ICE refused to take some of these arrestees, Arpaio would take them to the U.S. Border Patrol as a “back-up plan,” Snow wrote.

Snow would not sit in judgment on his own contempt order but referred the case to a different judge for an independent trial. The case fell to U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, appointed by President Bill Clinton.

On July 31, at the conclusion of a five-day bench trial, Bolton found that Judge Snow’s 2011  injunction had been clear, that Arpaio understood it but “willfully violated the order” by continuing to detain people “for whom no criminal charges could be filed.”

“The evidence shows a flagrant disregard for Judge Snow’s order,” Bolton ruled. Arpaio knew and understood the order but he “broadcast to the world and to his subordinates that he would and they should continue ‘what he had always been doing.’”

She set October 5 for Arpaio’s sentencing.  He was pardoned by President Trump August 25.

Case: U.S. v. Arpaio, No. CR16-1012

Sources: Findings of Fact,

Ortega v. Arpaio.  No. CV07-251, amended complaint, criminal contempt order.


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