Military and Police

Former Hardcore Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio Convicted of Contempt of Court, Plans Appeal


“Not only did the defendant 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.” 

The verdict is in: former no-nonsense Maricopa County, Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio was found guilty of contempt! A federal judge convicted him for refusing to abide by a court order to abstain from aggressive immigrant patrols, which civil rights activists felt was pure police profiling.

Mr. Arpaio was often written about as a stalwart practitioner of President Trump’s illegal immigration policies and was one of the guest speakers at the RNC in July 2016. Reportedly, Arpaio beefed his deputies to home in on undocumented immigrants with public-enemy-number-one fervor while implementing “saturation patrols” to relentlessly eradicate illegal aliens from American soil. The full breadth of the lawsuit can be viewed in “Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres v. Joseph M. Arpaio” filed in the United States District Court.

Like a barnacle on a hull, Arpaio was a hard-as-nails curmudgeon who gained and retained favor among the Maricopa County citizenry for almost a quarter century as sheriff. He became a larger-than-life household name known for his “tent city” jail methods. He implemented inmates’ pink attire and uniform dress codes, which many saw as a valid controlling mechanism for those doing time, while others saw his methods as dehumanizing and humiliating. Notwithstanding the varied scrutiny he garnered and strict lawman style he exuded, Arpaio did it his way.

And that was the operational norm…until too many TV broadcasts in which he inserted foot-in-mouth, brashly exclaiming he and his deputies would keep on doing what they had been doing, despite a court order admonishing him not to.

Hubris and hubbub ensued. So did judiciary pressure. Then the once-massive fan following started to crumble. Chronic negative press and highly publicized legal dilemmas in which Arpaio was directly implicated became a stain on Maricopa County, Arizona. Still, the octogenarian maintained his prolific posture and a sidearm…until an indictment came down the pike.

In 2011, US District Court Judge Murray Snow signed a court order prohibiting Arpaio and his deputies from what it deemed racial profiling, particularly involving members of the Hispanic demographic. A large-scale caucus of Democrats along with Hispanics in Arizona coupled to effectively denounce Arpaio and his law enforcement pressures. Litigation became the battle cry.

Among brewing discontent with Arpaio and his law enforcers, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spokesperson Cecillia Wang accused Arpaio and his deputies of violating the civil rights of Latino motorists, claiming they were being targeted for no verifiable reason other than their race. “This is just not a police agency that can be tolerated in our system of government,” Wang stated.

But even the ACLU conceded that Arizona’s SB 1070 is impetus for police enforcing immigration laws. So is the Arizona legislature a party to the police practices regarding immigration enforcement? Or is it merely the way Arpaio’s Maricopa County deputies enforced statutes that may have been deemed exceptionally against desires of constituents?


During trial, Arpaio’s defense waged he did not intentionally defy Judge Snow’s order. Conclusively, the court disagreed and cited racial profiling practices by Maricopa County deputies that carried on for approximately 18 months after the 2011 court order issued by Judge Snow. Moreover, Judge Snow cited a plethora of evidentiary items were withheld (“not disclosed”) by MCSO when it had a legal responsibility to do so (“discovery obligations”).

A sequence of TV news appearances and press releases actually provided evidence against Arpaio and were used by the court to levy contempt charges on the media-prone lawman.

Ultimately, Arpaio and his police force acknowledged there was non-compliance on their part, seemingly acknowledging the court order’s implications. Radio station KJZZ broadcasted information that “[Arpaio’s] attorneys argued that the violations were a result of poor communication and a lack of understanding by Arpaio and his command staff.” Nevertheless, it is always the top law enforcement executive’s responsibility to ensure agency policies are stratified, completely understood, and administered with discipline among the field operatives carrying out the mission. Responsibility rested with the elected official. Skepticism or not, the buck stops with badge #1.

Paring It Down

Often, Arpaio spoke publicly and thus recorded his intentions to maintain aggressive patrols focused on illegal immigration enforcement. Judge Snow took heed by issuing a court order to preclude Arpaio’s intentions. Judge Bolton adjudicated that Arpaio violated that court order. Kind of a slam-dunk case, yet along the judicial way a few wrinkles ensued for Arpaio. He once claimed his understanding of the court order had civil implications (misunderstanding), not criminal (willfully violated a court order). The judiciary saw it differently and felt he intentionally withheld evidence while disregarding its orders to cease and desist all profiling practices.

On July 31, 2017, the federal court found Arpaio guilty of contempt of court and set a sentencing date for October 5, 2017.

US District Judge Susan R. Bolton declared in her written statement: “Not only did the defendant 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.” Naturally, the judiciary took Arpaio’s actions as an affront, factoring into a conviction.

Judge Bolton’s conclusion contained the following: “The evidence at trial proves beyond a reasonable doubt and the Court finds that Judge Snow issued a clear and definite order enjoining Defendant from detaining persons from further investigation without reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed; that Defendant knew of the order; and that Defendant willfully violated the order by failing to do anything to ensure his subordinates’ compliance and by directing them to continue to detain persons for whom no criminal charges could be filed. Because the Court finds that Defendant willfully violated an order of the Court, it finds Defendant guilty of criminal contempt.”


Not so fast, say Arpaio’s attorneys. They have already mounted an appeal founded in claims that Judge Bolton violated Arpaio’s constitutional rights by not reading the 14-page conviction ruling to Arpaio in open court. Although his case was tried via a bench trial—Judge Bolton as the sole adjudicator—Arpaio always felt he had better chances of acquittal with a jury trial. Makes one wonder about the strategy and attendant results at this point.

Chad Willems, Arpaio’s campaign manager, at one time claimed the lawman is “enjoying a groundswell of support” during his bid for yet another reelection. “He does what he says he’s going to do, and he’s not afraid to go into a fight,” said Willems of Arpaio. To a degree, that stance closely resembles our present commander-in-chief.

Albeit embattled by the criminal contempt of court decision and any potential appeal of that ruling, will Arpaio’s pushback muster any momentum to embrace anything salvageable? Will any semblance of a voter base support the fight remaining in the octogenarian’s heart? Or is it just time to move on?

Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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