A federal judge in Arizona said on Tuesday that he would "seriously consider" referring notorious Phoenix-area sheriff Joe Arpaio for prosecution on charges of criminal contempt for violating court orders related to the racial profiling of Latinos. The judge also indicated that hundreds of individuals who were unlawfully detained by Arpaio's deputies could soon receive financial compensation.
US District Court Judge Murray Snow heard arguments on Tuesday about what penalties the 83-year-old Arpaio — widely known as "Sheriff Joe" — and his Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) should face for their continued racial profiling of Latinos. The judge ruled on May 13 that the sheriff and three of his top aides were in civil contempt for violating court orders.
Snow is expected to order further overhauls of the MCSO intended to further safeguard against racial profiling. "I don't have confidence anymore in the direction of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office," the judge said.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case implored Snow to refer the case to the US Attorney's Office for criminal contempt charges. If convicted, Arpaio could face hefty fines and jail time.
Arpaio's attorney countered that pressing criminal contempt charges would have a "devastating impact" on the aging sheriff and the county because he would be forced to abandon professional duties to stand trial, according to NBC News.
Protesters gathered outside the Phoenix courthouse on Tuesday with a giant, inflatable balloon that depicted Arpaio in a prison jumpsuit and handcuffs.
Tuesday's hearing was the latest in an eight-year legal saga that began in 2007 when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Latino plaintiffs who said Arpaio's deputies were unlawfully detaining people on suspicion of illegal immigration.
Arpaio, who has long touted himself as a crusader against illegal immigration, would regularly conduct "sweeps" in predominantly Latino neighborhoods and instruct officers to pull over Latino motorists for even the most minor traffic violations.
In May 2012, the US Department of Justice sued MCSO over its discriminatory law enforcement actions against Latinos. The following October, Snow ordered an overhaul within the agency to prevent further misconduct and safeguard the Latino community from being racially profiled in the future. But the directive never seemed to stick, and last month Snow found Arpaio and three of his top cohorts in contempt for repeatedly flouting the court's orders.
"The Court finds that the Defendants have engaged in multiple act of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith with respect to the Plaintiff class and the protection for its rights," Snow wrote in his scathing ruling. "They have demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of the court, as well as an intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct."
According to local news outlets present at the hearing on Tuesday, Snow noted that Arpaio's aides could be subject to a range of penalties, including being fired. But the judge said he has a limited ability to impose "severe penalties" on the elected sheriff, who he considers "the most culpable" for violating the court orders.
The self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America," Arpaio has forced his prisoners to wear pink, reinstituted chain gangs, warehoused mentally ill inmates, and sued the Obama administration over the president's 2014 executive actions on immigration. Arpaio has repeatedly won reelection by double-digit margins, despite the fact that his legal battles have cost taxpayers an estimated $142 million since he took office in 1993. The sheriff is seeking reelection again in 2016.
Phoenix-area taxpayers may end up footing the bill for this latest case too. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs have proposed awarding victims of racial profiling $1,500 for the first hour of unlawful detention, with another $1,000 paid out for every additional 20 minutes they spent locked up. The MCSO has countered by offering $500 and $35.
Reports from the courtroom indicated that Snow was leading toward a compromise of $1,000 for the first hour of detention and $200 for every 20 minutes thereafter.
The judge is expected to issue his final decision later this month.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen