PHOENIX (AP) — The six-term sheriff of metro Phoenix has been found in contempt of court for disobeying a federal judge's orders in a racial profiling case, bringing the lawman who calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff" a step closer to a possible criminal contempt case that could expose him to fines and even jail time.
Friday's ruling marked one of the biggest legal defeats in long career of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known for cracking down on illegal immigration, and was expected to lead to greater court oversight of his office.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow set a May 31 hearing for attorneys to discuss penalties. Shortly thereafter, Snow said he will issue an order on remedies and whether he will refer the case for criminal contempt.
Arpaio, a month away from turning 84, is running for re-election for the job he's held since 1993. Dan Saban, a former police chief in suburban Buckeye who ran unsuccessfully against Arpaio in 2004 and 2008 and is in the race again, said Friday that it was time for the longtime sheriff to resign.
The civil contempt finding doesn't disqualify Arpaio from holding office. It's unclear whether a criminal contempt finding would prevent him from serving as sheriff. A felony contempt conviction would force him from office, but the judge has the option of recommending either a misdemeanor or felony contempt case.
Arpaio and three of his top aides "have demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of this court, as well as an intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct," Snow wrote in his 162-page finding of facts ruling.
"We have begun our reading and analysis of this lengthy document, and expect to file a responsive memorandum," attorneys for the sheriff's office said in a statement late Friday afternoon. "Despite disagreeing with some of the court's findings, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office will continue to work with the court-appointed monitor, the ACLU and plaintiffs to comply with the court's orders, as it has since January 2014."
Snow ruled three years ago that Arpaio's officers systematically racially profiled Latinos in regular traffic stops and immigration patrols. He ordered a sweeping overhaul of the agency, including making patrol officers wear body cameras and conducting more training to ensure officers aren't making unconstitutional traffic stops.
Arpaio has acknowledged violating Snow's orders, including letting deputies conduct his signature immigration patrols 18 months after the judge barred them.
The judge said Friday that Arpaio "engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty and bad faith" related to those who sued over the racial profiling and "made multiple intentional misstatements of fact" while testifying during a hearing.
Snow is expected to require Maricopa County to compensate Latinos who were illegally detained during the 18 months that Arpaio's office violated the prohibition on its immigration patrols. The county has already paid out $41 million over the past eight years in the case, and taxpayers will have to pick up an additional $13 million over the next year.
"The irony is, while citizens pay the bill for the sheriff's violation of the previous court orders, they are the only ones who can remove Arpaio from office and restore professionalism to our law enforcement agency," said county Supervisor Steve Gallardo, a longtime Arpaio critic who will be voting on the spending.
Lawyers who pressed the case against Arpaio say at least 190 people were pulled over in violation of the order to stop immigration patrols, though they contend the number of victims is likely much higher. They said Arpaio violated the order because he wanted to look tough on immigration during a difficult 2012 election and later used his powerful position to insulate himself from the consequences of his decision.
One of those attorneys, Cecillia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Arpaio's defiance must end.
"Strong remedies are needed to protect the community's rights, starting with internal investigations that root out misconduct," she said. "Willing or not, the sheriff will be made to comply with the law."
An internal investigation into the violation didn't find any policy infractions and didn't result in discipline against any employees, even though Arpaio's top aide acknowledged defying the order.
The judge found Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan lied under oath and was in contempt on two counts. Lt. Joe Sousa and retired Chief Deputy Brian Sands each were found in contempt of one count.
The contempt case also examined a secret investigation by the sheriff's office that opponents say was intended to discredit Snow. Arpaio has been accused of retaliating against his critics in the past but vigorously denied investigating the judge.
He insists the investigation examined claims that someone had hacked the bank information of thousands of people. Snow has said the investigation tried to prove a "bogus conspiracy" between him and the U.S. Justice Department, which was pursuing a separate civil rights lawsuit against Arpaio.
The sheriff had testified that others in his office ran the investigation. Snow said the inquiry was relevant to the contempt case because it raises questions about whether Arpaio testified truthfully about it.