PHOENIX — A judge moved one step closer to launching a contempt-of-court case against metro Phoenix's sheriff for his office's repeated violations of orders issued in a racial-profiling case.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow didn't actually start the contempt case at a hearing Thursday attended by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But Snow sent strong signals that he intends to pursue contempt cases that could expose the sheriff to fines and perhaps jail time.
"It is impossible for me to let it go without some sort of appropriate response," Snow said of the violations. The judge noted Arpaio, when first meeting a court-appointed official who's monitoring the agency on Snow's behalf, said he loves to have confrontations with courts because such disputes increase his popularity.
Eighteen months ago, Snow found the sheriff's office had systematically singled out Latinos in regular traffic and special immigration patrols. Snow is requiring Arpaio's officers to video-record traffic stops, collect data on stops and undergo training to ensure they are making constitutional stops. Arpaio vigorously disputes the court's conclusions.
The judge has grown increasingly frustrated over what he said were inadequate internal investigations into wrongdoing by Arpaio's immigrant smuggling squad, including whether a deputy was shaking down immigrants who were in the country illegally.
He also is upset over a botched effort by the agency to recover videos of traffic stops that were withheld in the profiling case. And the judge has said the agency violated a December 2011 pretrial ruling that barred Arpaio's deputies from detaining people based solely on the suspicion that they're in the country illegally.
Arpaio came to court Thursday accompanied by criminal defense lawyer Melvin McDonald, but he didn't speak at the hearing.
"We have dedicated a lot of resources in the past, present and future to comply with the court's orders," Arpaio said as he left the courtroom, declining other requests to comment.
As the sheriff walked from the courthouse to a waiting car, he was swarmed by reporters as a handful of anti-Arpaio protesters yelled at him. "Arrest Arpaio, not the people," one protester shouted.
Tom Liddy, one of the lawyers defending the sheriff in the profiling case, said he doesn't believe Arpaio will go to jail. "It's very important to all involved that we don't make assumptions that something happened and then proceed with the contempt process," Liddy said.
Cecillia Wang, one of the attorneys who pressed the profiling case against Arpaio, said Snow must do something to make sure the sheriff respects his orders. "You cannot have a defendant in a federal civil rights case openly thumbing his nose time and again at a federal court and get away with it," Wang said.
The sheriff ordered the case's lawyers to file briefs on contempt proceedings by Jan. 8.
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