Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has had a tumultuous career, spending much of it in the spotlight as either a beacon of law and order or as a power-mad threat to civil liberties, depending on how you view him. Known for unusual punishments for those he held prisoner, such as forcing them to wear pink underwear in public or sleeping in tents in the scorching Arizona desert, Arpaio became a lion of the right for his crackdown on immigrants. He has never been one to shy away from controversy; instead, he courts it at virtually every opportunity. However, the latest chapter in his life is from the other side of the law, as his trial for contempt of court wraps up.
The charges stem from Arpaio’s refusal to comply with court orders from U.S. District Judge Murray Snow, telling him that the detention of individuals based solely on their immigration status was a violation of their civil liberties. Rather than comply with the orders, Arpaio flouted them and ordered his deputies and other members of his department to do the same. They continued to detain people, regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime other than border-hopping illegally. Additionally, the department was notorious for racial profiling, stopping citizens and immigrants, both legal and otherwise, simply for their appearance. In one case, Manuel Ortega Melendres was held for more than nine hours despite possessing and showing his visa.
From 2008 to 2010 the county was repeatedly investigated and even sued by the federal government for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Arpaio consistently and adamantly refused to comply, arguing that illegal immigration was in and of itself a crime worthy of detention. The problem was that he was roping in legal residents, citizens, and others individuals in his dragnet.
The result was a 2011 order from Judge Snow telling Arpaio in no uncertain terms to stop these practices immediately. Arpaio once again defied the courts, going so far as to say “no one is higher than me” when discussing the federal orders against him. Needless to say, he was investigated for abuse of power as well, though these charges were later dropped.
Arpaio felt invincible, arguing that because he was an elected official, he did not have to answer to either the state or the federal government. He survived multiple recall attempts and was reelected several times, bolstering his belief in his own untouchability. That all came crashing down in 2016, however, as the charges against him cost him his seat, finally ending his tenure as “America’s toughest sheriff.”
Meanwhile, the contempt trial moved forward, with prosecutors using not only documents and evidence gathered from the Maricopa County records but also playing video of Arpaio going on cable news programs proselytizing for his methods. It was also alleged that not only was he in defiance of the federal orders but that he proudly bragged about it as a “tough on crime” mentality and used it to fundraise for his election bids.
Arguments wrapped up on July 6, and the final word from the judge is expected sometime within the next few days.
[Featured Image by Angie Wang/AP Images]