Chasing after undocumented immigrants made Joe Arpaio a household name, but in time, his crusade became a double-edged sword. Public criticism mounted, racial profiling lawsuits poured in, and last year residents of Maricopa County, Ariz., voted him out after serving 24 years as their sheriff.
Now, the man who liked to be called “America’s toughest sheriff” awaits sentencing for a criminal contempt conviction, after he was found guilty in July of defying a court order to stop detaining people suspected of living in the country illegally. Arpaio may get a reprieve for the misdemeanor charge if President Trump – whom he supports – pardons him, which some observers think could happen as early as Tuesday night's at Mr. Trump's rally in Phoenix.
Mr. Arpaio calls his conviction a travesty of justice. While he won’t delve into the legal aspects of the case in a phone interview – he referred most questions to his lawyer, who didn't respond to the Monitor's requests for comment – he makes it clear he has no regrets about enforcing immigration law.
“We were doing our job,” he says.
The impacts of a pardon
Although Arpaio is not scheduled to be sentenced until Oct. 5, the outcome of a pardon now, some say, could be to lead others in law enforcement to take the same approach Arpaio did and fan the current flames of racism in the United States.
“To pardon this kind of racist conduct now ... is more than a dog whistle,” says Paul Charlton, a lawyer who spent 10 years as a US attorney in Arizona. “It’s an affirmative pat on the back to those who wish to conduct the same kind of racially motivated law enforcement.”
The concern is for “places where sheriffs or police chiefs want to take up the invitation of the Trump administration to engage in Arpaio-style tactics,” says Cecillia Wang, a lawyer in a civil suit against Arpaio and deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’re concerned about what the pattern is going to be.”
Trump indicated last week, in an interview with Fox News, that he is considering a pardon of Arpaio .
“He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration,” the president told Fox news anchor Gregg Jarrett. “He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”
Mr. Jarrett, who is also an attorney, said in a Fox broadcast that “there’s a better than 50 percent chance” that Trump could pardon Arpaio at the Tuesday rally. He also suggested that if Arpaio’s recent conviction had been put to a jury, he believes he more than likely would have been acquitted. A defendant is typically not entitled to a jury trial if the potential sentence is six months or less, however, other observers say.
In Phoenix, Mayor Greg Stanton and Democratic state lawmakers have called on the president to postpone the planned rally. Police are bracing for major protests.
“If President Trump is coming to Phoenix to announce a pardon for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, then it will be clear that his true intent is to inflame emotions and further divide our nation,” Mr. Stanton said in a statement.
Humbled by the possibility of a pardon
Arpaio, who is in his mid-80s and noticeably more reserved in the interview, says he’s humbled by the possibility of a pardon from a man whose politics he has long admired. As sheriff, he endorsed Trump early in his campaign and often spoke at rallies where both pushed for toughened immigration laws.
“I’ve always supported him and I always will,” Arpaio says of Trump.
Until his recent bench trial, Arpaio had largely been out of the spotlight he reveled in for much of his long tenure as the top lawman in Arizona’s most populous county.
After he was first elected in 1992, Arpaio developed a reputation for being tough on crime and big on theatrics. He forced inmates to live in outdoor tents during searing summers, made them wear pink undergarments, and resurrected chain gangs, all under the glaring lights of television. In the mid-2000s, buoyed by the raging debate over illegal immigration that gripped the nation, he turned his attention to those here unlawfully. The the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) stopped drivers, and raided workplaces, detaining people for months at a time. Several of these raids were in response to specific requests from constituents.
If you were detained in one of these raids, it was likely to be a traumatizing – potentially even life-changing – experience, says Francisca Porchas, organizing director of Puente Arizona, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix that sued the MCSO in 2014.
“To have this man being pardoned is to say we don’t really care about all the harm he’s done, we don’t’ really care about your suffering, we’re ok with this level of racism,” says Ms. Porchas.
With his agency’s immigration sweeps in Latino neighborhoods came accusations of racial discrimination and legal challenges from detainees, advocacy groups, and the federal government. Arpaio’s misdemeanor conviction stems from a years-long racial profiling case that the MCSO lost, with investigators finding that the agency engaged in racial profiling, unlawful traffic stops, and discriminated against non-English speakers in its jails, among other violations.
US District Judge G. Murray Snow in December 2011 ordered the agency to stop arresting individuals suspected of no other crime than being in the country illegally. But Arpaio's deputies continued the practice – which the judge had ruled unconstitutional – for at least 18 months. All told, the MCSO detained at least 171 people in violation of the court's order, according to federal prosecutors.
Despite Arpaio’s legal defense that the court order was too ambiguous to be understood, Judge Snow – a George W. Bush appointee – found him guilty first of civil contempt and subsequently referred the case to the Department of Justice for criminal contempt charges. Last month, US District Judge Susan Bolton found him guilty of criminal contempt, saying he showed a "flagrant disregard" for Judge Snow's orders.
Arpaio faces up to six months in jail, but observers say it’s unlikely he will serve any time.
While the Constitution sets very few limits on the presidential power of pardon, Mr. Charlton, the former US attorney, says a pardon of Arpaio would break with a long tradition of how when power is used.
“Those are for wrongful convictions, sentences that may have been excessive. Neither of those events has occurred here,” he adds. “Joe Arpaio is not deserving of the mercy that underlies the pardon authority given to the president.”
Arpaio blames much of his legal woes on the Obama administration. In 2012, the Department of Justice sued Arpaio for discrimination against Latinos and abuse of power, later settling the case. And as the then-sheriff campaigned for a seventh term in 2016, federal prosecutors announced four weeks before the Nov. 8 election that they would pursue criminal contempt charges against him, a rare legal move.
But it was the words of Arpaio's own subordinates, and Arpaio himself, that Justice Department prosecutors leaned on to secure Arpaio's prosecution. One officer, Sergeant Brett Palmer, testified that Arapaio ordered him to continue enforcing federal immigration law, in violation of Judge Snow's order. Arpaio himself spoke frequently about defying the order, including one video clip shown during the trial where he tells an inmate at his jail that “Nobody is higher than me. I am the elected sheriff by the people. I don’t serve any governor or the president.” Judge Bolton quoted Arpaio directly more than 20 times in her opinion last month.
Bill Beamish, an Arpaio supporter who lives in the same suburb of Phoenix as the former sheriff, says the charges against the former sheriff were nothing less than a political witch hunt.
“He was trying to follow the letter of the law as best as he understood it,” Mr. Beamish says. “It’s a rigged system, I’m afraid, so it wouldn’t matter whether it was Joe trying to do his job or somebody else doing something else that maybe wasn’t in the current politically correct circles.”
Arpaio may no longer be in law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean he’s done talking about his exploits. He’s writing a book and is involved with a fledgling organization created in his name to advocate for conservative causes.
“I've got some irons in the fire," he says. "We’ll see what the future holds.”