Maricopa County’s controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio was slapped with criminal contempt charges this week that allege he willfully violated a judge’s order to stop illegally racially profiling Latinos. He also faces possible charges for obstruction of justice and perjury. The 84-year-old Arpaio has to appear in federal court on December 6. If convicted, he could face up to six months in jail.
But first, in just two weeks, the sheriff faces the toughest reelection contest of his multi-decade career. Arpaio can either be removed from office by Arizona’s voters or by the federal courts.
Fernando Abundes, an undocumented restaurant worker who spent four months in Arpaio’s jail after deputies raided his workplace, hopes for the former.
“It’s important that our people turn out to vote and throw him out of office immediately,” he said at a press conference in Phoenix Tuesday night. “He has affected and separated so many families and humiliated us. This man has been cruel with our community and this is our opportunity to get him out.”
Abundes has been working with hundreds of other local activists in a campaign called “Bazta Arpaio” — a play on the state’s initials and the Spanish word for “enough” — to turn out voters this November.
“The true judges of Arpaio are the voters,” said civil rights activist Salvador Reza, who was racially profiled and arrested by Arpaio’s department in 2010. “The courts might take a long time, months or years, but we can end this right now by voting.”
Arpaio is currently trailing his opponent, Democrat Paul Penzone, by 15 polling points, despite having raised four times as much money.
A long and winding legal battle has brought Sheriff Arpaio to this moment. Over the course of his 23 years in office, he has employed harsh and sometimes illegal immigration enforcement tactics, all while promoting his own reputation as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
According to a Justice Department investigation, he set up checkpoints that stopped and questioned residents based on the color of their skin, detained people without a warrant simply because they were Latino, and used excessive force against suspected undocumented immigrants. He kept inmates in an outdoor “tent city” prison where temperatures reached 140 degrees, denied diabetic inmates access to medicine, and ran a department that routinely used racial slurs and derogatory terms like “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” “fucking Mexicans,” and “stupid Mexicans.”
In 2011, a court banned Arpaio’s department from detaining anyone solely based on the suspicion that they might be an undocumented immigrant. They continued to do so for at least 18 more months. In 2013, the court appointed a monitor to make sure Arpaio stopped the illegal racial profiling tactics and complied with mandatory reforms. Arpaio did not comply.
Susan Bolton with United States District Court for the District of Arizona cited evidence that he continued arresting undocumented immigrants who had no charges against them “based on the notoriety he received for, and the campaign donations he received because of, his immigration enforcement activity.”
The ensuing court battles have cost Arizona taxpayers more than $50 million dollars.
When the Justice Department announced criminal contempt charges this week, Arpaio’s campaign manager Chad Willems dismissed them as a “further attempts to sabotage Sheriff Arpaio in his bid for a seventh unprecedented term.”
“It is clear from the timing that the Department of Justice is merely a political tool of a corrupt Administration,” he said. “Justice plays no part in this Department’s actions and clear political motivations.”
With early voting already underway and Election Day fast approaching, anti-Arpaio activists are knocking on doors, marching in the streets, and putting up banners featuring the sheriff in prison garb.
But civil rights attorney Antonio Bustamante cautioned that Arpaio is unlikely to serve prison time under the current misdemeanor charges. “People get excited and say Arpaio is going to jail, [but] we have to take that with a grain of salt,” he said. “The court has the power to give him up to six months in jail, but it’s very doubtful for a person with a deplorable moral history but no criminal record.
Yet Bustamante and other attorneys will continue pressing Justice Department to investigate bringing felony charges— for obstruction of justice and perjury.
“That could land the exalted sheriff in a cell in the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” he said.