Arizona sheriff’s defiance made him popular, led to downfall

PHOENIX — The political defiance that made Joe Arpaio popular and seemingly untouchable as metro Phoenix’s sheriff of 24 years ultimately led to his downfall as he was convicted of a crime for ignoring a U.S. court order to stop traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.

The TV interviews and news releases that the media-savvy lawman used over the years to promote his immigration crackdowns came back to bite him. The judge who found him guilty of misdemeanor contempt of court cited comments Arpaio made about keeping up the patrols, even though he knew he was not allowed.

“Not only did defendant abdicate responsibility, he announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise,” U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton wrote.

The verdict Monday marked a final rebuke for a politician who once drew strong support from such crackdowns but was booted from office last year as voters got frustrated with his deepening legal troubles and headline-grabbing tactics, such as jailing inmates in tents during triple-degree summer heat and making them wear pink underwear.

Arpaio told The Associated Press that he didn’t have an immediate comment on the verdict, but his attorneys said they will appeal. The 85-year-old is set to be sentenced Oct. 5 and could face up to six months in jail, but attorneys who have followed the case doubt someone his age would be incarcerated.

Critics said the verdict that followed a five-day trial in Phoenix was a long-awaited comeuppance for a lawman who had managed to escape accountability through much of his six terms.

Lydia Guzman, a Latino civil rights advocate and longtime Arpaio critic, said the sheriff was partly responsible for Arizona’s reputation as a place that’s intolerant of immigrants.

“He is the one who led the rally against immigrants, and the legislators followed suit,” Guzman said, noting Arizona’s landmark 2010 immigration law. “I hope a lot of this is erased and that Arizona can go back to being a normal state. I don’t know when that will be.”

Prosecutors say Arpaio ignored the 2011 order from a different U.S. judge so he could promote his immigration enforcement efforts in an effort to boost his 2012 re-election campaign. That judge later ruled the traffic patrols racially profiled Latinos.

The sheriff had acknowledged prolonging his patrols for nearly a year and a half but insisted it was not intentional. He also blamed one of his former attorneys in the racial profiling case for not properly explaining the importance of the court order.

Bolton rejected all Arpaio’s key arguments, saying the attorney had clearly informed him of the order and that a top aide also read part of it aloud to him during a staff meeting.

His lawyers contend the former sheriff’s fate should have been decided by a jury, not a judge. They also said Bolton violated Arpaio’s rights by not reading the decision in court.

“Her verdict is contrary to what every single witness testified in the case,” his lawyers said in a statement. “Arpaio believes that a jury would have found in his favor, and that it will.”

His defense had focused on what his attorneys said were weaknesses in the court order that failed to acknowledge times when deputies would detain immigrants and later hand them over to federal authorities.

Unlike other local police leaders who left immigration enforcement to U.S. authorities, Arpaio made hundreds of arrests in traffic patrols that sought out immigrants and business raids in which his officers targeted immigrants who used fraudulent IDs to get jobs.

The efforts are similar to local immigration enforcement that President Donald Trump has advocated. To build his highly touted deportation force, Trump is reviving a long-standing program that deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration law.

Arpaio’s immigration powers were eventually stripped away by the courts and federal government.

The contempt-of-court case marked the first time federal authorities had prosecuted Arpaio on a criminal charge, though his office had been the subject of past investigations.

Federal authorities had looked into Arpaio’s misspending of $100 million in jail funds and his criminal investigations of political enemies. Neither investigation led to prosecution of the sheriff or his employees.

Arpaio’s criminal charges are believed to have contributed heavily to his crushing defeat in November to Paul Penzone, a little-known retired Phoenix police sergeant.

He was ousted in the same election that sent Trump to the White House. Trump used some of the same immigration rhetoric that helped make Arpaio a national figure in the debate over the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cecillia Wang, an attorney who helped press the racial profiling case against Arpaio, said his fate is a cautionary tale for police bosses who want to get into immigration enforcement.

“What was a lark to him in going after undocumented immigrants was terrible, not only for the people he hurt but also for his own agency and his career,” Wang said. “His career will go down as ending with his conviction.”

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