Arpaio faces new round of contempt hearings

Posted at 6:57 PM, Sep 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-24 21:57:44-04

A new round of contempt-of-court hearings began Thursday in Phoenix against the sheriff in the nation's sixth-largest city over his defiance of a judge's order to stop carrying out his signature immigration patrols.

TIMELINE: Sheriff Joe contempt of court case

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose immigration crackdowns turned him into a national political figure, listened intently as his second-in-command testified about emails involving the agency's violation of a key court order in the racial profiling case.

The order demanding the office stop the patrols was ignored for 18 months.

Arpaio could face fines as a result of the hearings and could later be called into criminal court on the same grounds. He is expected to testify Tuesday or Wednesday.

In testimony, Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan acknowledged receiving emails about the agency's violation of court orders but said he delegated the reading of the messages to subordinates.

He said he doesn't remember seeing the emails and didn't learn about the violation until years later.

Sheridan said he was consumed by other issues in the department at the time, including a death in its jail, effort to address bungled sex crime investigations, and a Justice Department civil rights investigation.

"This is something the chief deputy should have done but that's not what I did," he said.

Cecillia Wang, an attorney leading the case against Arpaio's office, questioned Sheridan about why he didn't get involved in the case sooner. She noted that the court order in question was discussed in emails sent to him and during a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting attended by Sheridan.

"I am not a lawyer," Sheridan said. "I knew there was an issue with the case. I knew and was aware that there was (a) class-action suit -- Melendres versus Arpaio -- but I was not familiar with the case."

Other subjects to be examined at the contempt hearing include allegations the sheriff launched an investigation of the judge in the racial profiling case in a failed bid to get him disqualified, and that Arpaio's officers pocketed identification and other personal items seized from people during traffic stops and safe-house busts.

While questioning Sheridan, Wang also focused on 40 internal affairs investigations launched after evidence bags, illegal drugs and a large collection of IDs were found in the home of then-Deputy Charley Armendariz, who implicated other officers in wrongdoing, quit his job and killed himself in May 2014.

Of the 40 investigations, one sheriff's manager who was in charge of supervising Armendariz received unspecified major discipline, though he was promoted during the internal investigation, Sheridan said. Six to eight other officers received a written reprimand.

Sheridan was the only witness to testify Thursday and was questioned by only an opposing attorney. Arpaio's lawyers will get a chance to question him on Friday.

Outside the courthouse, dozens of Arpaio critics held a protest, carrying signs that said "Contemptible" and "Cuff Joe."

The sheriff underwent a first round of contempt hearings in April. The current round is scheduled to stretch into November.

The toughest legal defeats in Arpaio's 22-year tenure as sheriff have come from U.S. District Judge Murray Snow, who concluded more than two years ago that the police agency had systematically racially profiled Latinos in traffic and immigration patrols.

The judge has repeatedly expressed his frustration at the agency's failure to abide by his decision or carry out adequate investigations into officer wrongdoing.

The profiling case is projected to cost taxpayers $50 million by next summer. The costs include legal fees for lawyers on both sides, buying cameras for hundreds of deputies and paying for a team of former police officials to monitor Arpaio's office.

The taxpayer bill is expected to continue to rise until the sheriff's office has been found to be in full compliance with the court-ordered changes for three straight years.