Is the liberal left targeting Sheriff Joe Arpaio because of his no tolerance for illegal immigrants or is this ‘criminal contempt’ real?
A federal judge on Friday referred Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and three of his aides to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, requesting that they be prosecuted for criminal contempt of court.
The landmark decision comes after U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow found that Arpaio intentionally violated various orders rooted in an 8-year-old racial-profiling case.
The judge’s order also refers Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, Arpaio’s former defense attorney Michele Iafrate, and Capt. Steve Bailey for prosecutors to consider criminal contempt charges against them as well.
The sheriff and Sheridan already have been held in civil contempt of court. Potential penalties are steeper in a criminal case, and only criminal contempt could result in incarceration.
“Criminal contempt serves to vindicate the Court’s authority by punishing the intentional disregard for that authority,” Snow wrote in his Friday order.
Snow’s decision, announced in a federal court filing, answers the key question that loomed over more than a year of contempt proceedings: Was the sheriff’s disregard of orders a criminal or civil contempt-of-court violation?
But it creates a whole new set of legal questions for the embattled lawman.
- Will the U.S. Attorney’s Office accept the recommendation?
- What will the charge be?
- If Arpaio is found guilty, will a conviction legally force him to resign?
- Could Arpaio end up behind bars?
- Will Snow’s decision affect Arpaio’s odds for a seventh term?
Reached for comment Friday evening, Arpaio said he hadn’t yet read the order but that it was being reviewed by his attorneys.
“We’re moving forward, we’re doing our job,” he said. “There’ll be aggressive appeals.”
Arpaio said he was looking forward to an “independent review,” clarifying that he meant a review by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Mel McDonald, Arpaio’s attorney representing him in criminal matters, said the ruling came more as a disappointment than a surprise.
“I think the evidence is clearly insufficient for him to make this referral,” he said. “We will be requesting a meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and urging them to not go forward with it.”
John Leonardo is the U.S. attorney for Arizona.
Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for Leonardo, described the criminal contempt referral as “a very atypical situation” and said it is not clear what will happen next.
“We just received it about an hour ago,” Lopez said Friday evening. “It’s about 32 pages, so we’re just reviewing it like everyone else.”
He said the U.S. attorney will have several options, including passing the referral on to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section based in Washington, D.C. He declined to list other options and said it could take a couple of weeks for a determination on how to proceed.
Lopez said he does not know if Leonardo serves on any government task forces or boards that might create a conflict of interest in handing a case involving the sheriff.
Former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton said there are few cases to look to for precedent. In a July interview, Charlton said he couldn’t think of another instance in which a federal judge had referred the head of a law-enforcement agency for criminal contempt.
“Fortunately in this country, it doesn’t happen,” Charlton said. “All of this is going to be relatively new in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”