PHOENIX (AP) — The political defiance that made Joe Arpaio popular as metro Phoenix’s sheriff for 24 years ultimately did him in Monday when he was found guilty of a crime for ignoring a judge’s order to stop his traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.
The TV interviews and news releases that the media-savvy lawman used over the years to promote his immigration crackdowns came back to bite him when the judge who convicted him cited comments the sheriff made about continuing his patrols, even though he knew he was barred from launching them.
“Not only did 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,” wrote U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton.
The 85-year-old is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 5 on his misdemeanor conviction for contempt-of-court, which carries a jail sentence of up to six months in jail. Attorneys who have followed the case doubt someone his age would be incarcerated.
The verdict marked a final rebuke for a politician who once drew strong popularity from such crackdowns but was booted from office last year as voters became frustrated over his deepening legal troubles and headline-grabbing tactics, such as jailing inmates in tents during triple-degree summer heat and making them wear pink underwear.
Critics said the verdict was a long-awaited comeuppance for lawman who had managed to escape accountability through much of his six terms.
Prosecutors say Arpaio violated the order so he could promote his immigration enforcement efforts in an effort to boost his 2012 re-election campaign.
Lydia Guzman, a Latino civil rights advocate and longtime Arpaio critic, said the lawman was partly responsible for Arizona’s reputation as a place that’s inhospitable to immigrants.
“He is the one who led the rally against immigrants, and the legislators followed suit,” Guzman said, noting the state’s landmark 2010 immigration law. “I hope a lot of this is erased and that Arizona can go back being a normal state. I don’t know when that will be.”
Arpaio was barred in December 2011 from conducting immigration patrols by a federal judge who was presiding over a racial profiling case.
The sheriff had acknowledged prolonging his patrols but insisted it was not intentional. He also blamed one of his former attorneys in a racial profiling case for not properly explaining the importance of the court order.
Bolton rejected all Arpaio’s key arguments, saying it was clear he knew of the order but still chose to continue the patrols.
She said an attorney had clearly informed him of the order, and a top aide also read a portion of it aloud Arpaio during a staff meeting.
Arpaio, when reached by The Associated Press, said he didn’t have an immediate comment on the verdict.
His lawyers said they will appeal the verdict, contending their client’s legal fate should have been decided by a jury, not a judge. They also said Bolton violated Arpaio’s rights by not reading the decision in court.
“Her verdict is contrary to what every single witness testified in the case,” his lawyers said in a statement. “Arpaio believes that a jury would have found in his favor, and that it will.”
His defense focused on what his attorneys said were weaknesses in the court order that failed to acknowledge times when deputies would detain immigrants and later hand them over to federal authorities.
Unlike other local police leaders who left immigration enforcement to U.S. authorities, Arpaio made hundreds of arrests in traffic patrols that sought out immigrants and business raids in which his officers targeted immigrants who used fraudulent IDs to get jobs.
The efforts are similar to local immigration enforcement that President Donald Trump has advocated. To build his highly touted deportation force, Trump is reviving a long-standing program that deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration law.
Arpaio’s immigration powers were eventually stripped away by the courts and federal government.
The contempt-of-court case marked the first time federal authorities had prosecuted Arpaio on a criminal charge, though his office had been the subject of past investigations.
Federal authorities had looked into Arpaio’s misspending of $100 million in jail funds and his criminal investigations of political enemies. Neither investigation led to prosecution of the sheriff or his employees.
Arpaio’s criminal charges are believed to have contributed heavily to his crushing defeat in November to little-known retired Phoenix police Sgt. Paul Penzone.
Arpaio was ousted in the same election that sent Trump to the White House. Trump used some of the same immigration rhetoric that helped make Arpaio a national figure in the debate over the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cecillia Wang, an attorney who helped pressed the profiling case against Arpaio, said the lawman’s legal fate is a cautionary tale for police bosses who want to get into immigration enforcement.
“What was a lark to him in going after undocumented immigrants was terrible, not only for the people he hurt but also for his own agency and his career,” Wang said. “His career will go down as ending with his conviction.”
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud.
This story has been corrected to show that Arpaio faces up to six months in jail, not six years.
By JACQUES BILLEAUD, Associated Press
(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)