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Judge To Rule On Contempt Charges Against Maricopa County Sheriff

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Arizona lawman who branded himself as America's toughest sheriff is back in court today. Maricopa County's Joe Arpaio may be best known for his tough stance on illegal immigration. But earlier this month, he was found in contempt of court. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Jude Joffe-Block reports.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: To understand why Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now in contempt of court, we have to go back to 2011. That's when Federal Judge Murray Snow ruled the sheriff's office must stop making immigration arrests. But the sheriff ignored that order for 17 months. And during that time, Cecillia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union says he violated the civil rights of Latino drivers.

CECILLIA WANG: They were at risk of being arrested for no reason, of being targeted for traffic stops apparently because of their race.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Last year, the same judge initiated civil contempt proceedings against the sheriff for failing to follow his order, as well as other violations, like withholding evidence. The sheriff and his attorneys declined to comment for this story, but this is his lawyer, John Masterson, speaking to reporters last fall.

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JOHN MASTERSON: Were there mistakes made? Absolutely. Were court orders violated? Absolutely. But the key we wanted to get across to the court and the public, for that matter, is that it was not intentional.

JOFFE-BLOCK: But in a massive contempt ruling released earlier this month, Judge Murray Snow found Arpaio's violations were intentional. In fact, Snow concluded Arpaio purposefully ignored the 2011 order to help his re-election bid. Again, the ACLU's Cecellia Wang.

WANG: This is just not a police agency that can be tolerated in our system of government.

JOFFE-BLOCK: The judge will be deciding what must be done to correct the agency and compensate people who were wrongfully detained. Arpaio's attorney sent a memo to the judge Friday saying the sheriff was devastated by the ruling.

So far, the sheriff and his chief deputy have volunteered to personally donate $100,000 to a Latino civil rights organization, and they agreed to seed some oversight authority to an independent entity. The sheriff could face even more serious consequences if the judge decides to refer the case to a criminal prosecutor.

PAUL CHARLTON: A criminal violation could call for imprisonment, incarceration.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Paul Charlton is the former U.S. attorney for Arizona. He believes the strong language in the judge's order calling Arpaio's violations intentional and deliberate are clues to what's in store.

CHARLTON: Those are words which signal very clearly that there is a very high likelihood that there is a criminal prosecution in Joe Arpaio's future.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, hey - ho, ho - racist Joe has got to go. Hey, hey...

JOFFE-BLOCK: At a rally outside the sheriff's office last week, a few dozen protesters - most of them Latino - held signs calling for Arpaio to face criminal charges. One of those protesters was Salvador Reza.

SALVADOR REZA: The only punishment for Arpaio is for him to taste the same thing he did to everybody else.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Reza says that means prison but Arpaio has different plans. The 83-year-old has been stumping for Donald Trump and is also running for his seventh term as sheriff. Arpaio's campaign manager, Chad Willems, says the sheriff is enjoying a groundswell of support.

CHAD WILLEMS: He does what he says he's going to do, and he's not afraid to go into a fight.

JOFFE-BLOCK: As of the last official report, Arpaio had already raised nearly $8 million for his re-election. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.