PHOENIX (AP) — The political career of Joe Arpaio ended last year when the six-term sheriff of metro Phoenix known for cracking down on illegal immigration and housing inmates in tents outside in the desert heat was trounced in an election that focused on his own legal troubles.
Now, the 85-year-old who called himself America’s toughest sheriff will face his day of reckoning in court for defying a judge’s order to stop traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.
Arpaio’s trial starts Monday on a criminal contempt-of-court charge for prolonging the patrols for nearly a year and a half. The judge later found that Arpaio’s officers had racially profiled Latinos.
The former sheriff could face up to six months in jail, though lawyers who have followed his case doubt he would get locked up if convicted.
His critics hope the case will bring a long-awaited comeuppance for the former lawman who led crackdowns that divided immigrant families and escaped accountability when he regularly flouted the rules.
Attorney Mike Manning, who isn’t involved in the case but has sued Arpaio several times over deaths in the jails, said the famously defiant Arpaio deserves his fate because he “saluted the court with his middle finger” when he violated the court order.
Jack Wilenchik, an Arpaio attorney, said the former sheriff is charged with a crime for cooperating with federal immigration authorities, which the Trump administration now is encouraging more police agencies to do.
“This is really just a fight about immigration law and what it means,” Wilenchik said. “And Arpaio is trying to do what a good cop does, which is to enforce the law.”
Arpaio, reached by phone last week, declined to comment.
He rode to national prominence by launching highly publicized immigration crackdowns, landing him in court when Hispanic immigrants sued. He was ousted from office last year in the same election that sent Donald Trump to the White House after using some of the same immigration rhetoric that made Arpaio a national name a decade earlier.
The key issue in the trial will be whether Arpaio intentionally violated a judge’s 2011 order to stop the patrols. Arpaio acknowledges that he kept up the immigration enforcement but says it was not on purpose. For a conviction, prosecutors must prove he intended to disobey the judge.
The judge found Arpaio ignored the order because he believed his immigration enforcement efforts would help his 2012 re-election campaign. His legal troubles likely contributed to his crushing defeat in November to retired Phoenix police Sgt. Paul Penzone.
The things that Arpaio used over the years to boost his popularity — TV interviews, news releases and tough talk about America’s border woes — are now being used against him in court.
Arpaio said in a news release a week after the judge told him to stop the patrols that he would continue to enforce immigration laws. A few weeks later, he told a TV interviewer that deputies were still detaining immigrants in the country illegally.
It’s not clear if Arpaio will testify, but two people who were illegally detained plan to take the witness stand to describe their traffic stops.
Arpaio has brought several longshot legal efforts. He tried unsuccessfully to bar prosecutors from mentioning his comments about immigration during his last three campaigns. And he subpoenaed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a witness.
Attorney Andy Jacob, who isn’t involved in the case but has watched much of it as a court spectator, said the criminal charge will ensure that the sheriff’s office will comply the next time a judge hands down an order.
“This is to vindicate the power of the court,” he said.
Tom Morrissey, a retired chief U.S. marshal who has been a friend of Arpaio’s for more than two decades, said the former sheriff’s supporters are furious about how he’s being treated in the courts and in news coverage.
“That fury is growing. Joe is just one of the victims of a corrupt process and a corrupt system,” said Morrissey, a former state GOP chairman.
Lydia Guzman, a Latino civil rights advocate and longtime Arpaio critic, said a criminal conviction would help hold the former sheriff accountable for breaking the rules and tarnish his reputation.
“This will be his legacy, that he abused his power,” Guzman said. “It will end in a mugshot. I don’t think he is afraid of jail. I think he is afraid of what this will do to his image and the legacy he leaves behind.”