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Ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio Faces Criminal Contempt Trial


Arizona's Joe Arpaio served for two dozen years as Maricopa County sheriff. In that time, he was both celebrated and reviled as America's toughest sheriff for his treatment of prison inmates and his tough stance on immigration violations. Arpaio is no longer sheriff, having lost re-election last year. And starting tomorrow, he will be a defendant in what's expected to be an eight-day criminal trial in Phoenix. He's charged with criminal contempt of court for disobeying a judge's order in a racial profiling case. Here to tell us more is reporter Jude Joffe-Block with member station KJZZ, who's been covering this story from Phoenix. Jude, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So even people who don't know about this case may remember the name Joe Arpaio. He was an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump's. He had a national reputation for his tactics in pursuing illegal migrants. So what were some of those tactics, and are they a factor in the criminal case against him?

JOFFE-BLOCK: Yes, they absolutely are. So in the mid-2000s, Arpaio began really aggressive tactics, going after immigrants. If his deputies encountered unauthorized immigrants at a traffic stop, if there was no criminal offense, the deputies would take the immigrants into custody and turn them over to federal agents for deportation. And back in 2011, a federal judge told Arpaio he couldn't do that. He couldn't detain immigrants just because they were here unlawfully. And this case is all about whether Arpaio purposefully violated that court order.

MARTIN: What do federal prosecutors need to prove in this case?

JOFFE-BLOCK: After that court order came down, for 18 months, Arpaio's deputies kept up business as usual. They kept picking up undocumented immigrants, turning them over to Border Patrol. And the prosecutors will be trying to prove that he knew about the order and purposefully defied it for political reasons. And if Arpaio's convicted, it - the maximum penalty could be up to six months in prison. But given that he's 85 years old, that kind of sentence isn't likely, but he could also have to pay a fine.

MARTIN: So what is his defense?

JOFFE-BLOCK: They're saying the federal government encourages police departments to do exactly what Arpaio - did turn immigrants over to Border Patrol. And our Arpaio therefore didn't do anything wrong. In fact, his lawyers are pointing out that the current administration is threatening to punish localities that don't coordinate on immigration. And that's why Arpaio is actually trying to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to testify in this case, but it's still unclear whether that will happen. Many think that's a long shot.

MARTIN: Well, that does raise the interesting question about what the relationship is between the Justice Department and this case. The Justice Department, owing to the change of administrations, other federal agencies have declined to continue to pursue legal cases that were brought under the previous administration. I mean, you know, it is not a secret that former Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a strong supporter of Donald Trump, a very early and very ardent supporter. And as you said, they seem to have very similar views on immigration and the way to address immigration violations. So what is the Justice Department's stance on this case? And why is it that the prosecution is going forward?

JOFFE-BLOCK: Right. And many of Arpaio's supporters see this as a political vendetta brought by the Obama Justice Department against Arpaio. And they expected and hoped for perhaps that Trump would intervene in some way and prevent this case from going forward. This case is being brought by the Justice Department's public integrity section, which is a unit that really is supposed to stay very independent. And that is perhaps what we're seeing here.

MARTIN: This case is - I think we've noted, has attracted a lot of attention far outside of Arizona. Why is that?

JOFFE-BLOCK: Well, there were allegations of racial profiling through Arpaio's immigration enforcement strategies. And actually, a federal judge found that he did indeed discriminate against Latino drivers. And the Latino community here really feels like this case, this trial is the last chance that Arpaio could be held accountable for all the pain of the deportations and family separations that he put the Phoenix Latino community through.

MARTIN: That's Jude Joffe-Block She's with member station KJZZ. Jude, thanks so much for joining us.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.