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Former Sheriff Arpaio Guilty of Criminal Contempt, Receives Presidential Pardon

by Joe Watson

Former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio’s words, rather than his misdeeds, finally landed him on the verge of going to prison – but he was pulled back from the brink after receiving a presidential pardon.

The self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” who was ousted by voters in November 2016 after nearly a quarter-century in office, was found guilty of criminal contempt by a federal district court on July 31, 2017. Arpaio, 85, had been charged with willfully violating an injunction in a racial profiling case, Melendres v. Arpaio, by continuing to have his deputies target Hispanics during traffic stops.

In her written judgment, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton said Arpaio had exhibited “flagrant disregard” for a December 2011 injunction that was intended to halt the former sheriff’s harassment of Hispanics and his raids of Phoenix-area businesses that allegedly employed undocumented immigrants.

“Not only did [Arpaio] 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,” Judge Bolton wrote, citing Arpaio’s own public comments 20 times in her order.

In June 2017, former Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) chief deputy Jack MacIntyre, who was one of Arpaio’s top advisers, testified that he read the injunction twice to the sheriff and others during an executive staff meeting in January 2012, hoping “to make sure that everyone knew what the order said.” According to MacIntyre, he believed “that the judge’s preliminary injunction forbade the arrest, detention, or delay or stoppage of individuals merely based on the belief or suspicion, or reality, that they were here in this country illegally alone,” and that the injunction required a change in MCSO’s policy of “stopping, detaining, or delaying individuals based on mere illegal presence in this country alone.”

However, in a March 2012 interview with Univision, Arpaio confirmed he was still detaining and arresting undocumented immigrants. He further said, according to Bolton’s verdict, that he would continue to enforce the law and “if they don’t like what I’m doing, get the laws changed in Washington.”

In a Fox News show a month later, the former sheriff stated “[he] will never give in to control by the federal government.” The next day, in an interview with CBS about a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into his office, Arpaio said, “Why are they going after this sheriff? Well, we know why. Because they don’t like me enforcing illegal immigration law.” A week later he did another television interview, saying, “I have support across the nation as evidenced by the big bucks I’m raising for my next campaign. They don’t give you money unless they believe in you ... I want everyone to know what I do.”

Further, during a PBS Newshour show, when asked about the impact to MCSO’s operations if the Supreme Court struck down Arizona’s controversial anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, Arpaio said:
“[N]one. I’m still going to do what I’m doing. I’m still going to arrest illegal aliens coming into this country.” Most of SB 1070 was ruled unconstitutional.

Yet summary reports from the MCSO’s Human Smuggling Unit – which carried out Arpaio’s immigration raids – documented that between the day in 2011 when the federal court injunction was entered and May 2013, 171 people “not charged with a criminal offense were turned over to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]” by the sheriff’s office, Judge Bolton wrote.

Arpaio was elected to his first of six terms as Maricopa County sheriff in 1992. During his lengthy tenure he built the infamous “Tent City” – an outdoor jail that exposed prisoners to Arizona’s extremely hot temperatures, which his successor as sheriff, Paul Penzone, has since shut down. The Tent City jail officially closed in October 2017.

Arpaio also forced prisoners to wear pink underwear, fed them unappetizing meals that included green bologna, otherwise humiliated them to gain political points and operated chain gangs. He was successfully sued for tens of millions of dollars by the families of prisoners who were beaten to death by his deputies or died due to medical neglect; Prison Legal News reported many of those cases. The former sheriff was a bully who attacked his critics, including members of the news media, judges and other elected officials, sometimes launching retaliatory criminal investigations and pursuing spurious charges. [See, e.g., PLN, Aug. 2008, p.12].

Arpaio’s sentencing hearing on the contempt charge was scheduled for October 5, 2017, though it was never held.

President Donald Trump pardoned the former lawman in late August 2017 – his first pardon – citing Arpaio’s “selfless public service” and efforts to “protect[] the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.” Arpaio had been a vocal supporter during Trump’s presidential campaign and appeared with him at campaign rallies. Trump had indicated a pardon was forthcoming a week earlier, during a speaking event in Phoenix.

A number of legal and civil rights organizations, including the ACLU and American Bar Association (ABA), condemned the pardon.

“The crime that Arpaio was convicted of committing – criminal contempt of court for ignoring a judge’s order – showed a blatant disregard for the authority of the judiciary,” stated ABA president Hilarie Bass.

U.S. Senator John McCain weighed in, too, saying: “Mr. Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for continuing to illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status in violation of a judge’s orders. The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions.”

On September 11, 2017, the MacArthur Justice Center and Protect Democracy Project filed amicus briefs with the district court, arguing that Trump’s presidential pardon was unconstitutional. The court ultimately upheld the pardon and dismissed the guilty verdict against Arpaio, though on October 19, Judge Bolton ruled the pardon did not alter the facts in the case related to the former sheriff’s misconduct.

“The pardon undoubtedly spared defendant from any punishment that might otherwise have been imposed,” she wrote. “It did not, however, ‘revise the historical facts’ of this case.”

Arpaio’s attorneys have since appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit. See: United States v. Arpaio, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:16-cr-01012-SRB. 

Sources: Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times,,,

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