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Trial begins for ex-Arizona Sheriff Arpaio accused of defying judge

The sheriff was ordered in 2011 to cease controversial practices related to immigration.

By Doug G. Ware
Former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016. File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
Former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016. File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

June 26 (UPI) -- Nearly eight months after he was ousted from office, former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio went on trial Monday -- accused of ignoring a federal judge's order to stop immigration enforcement practices that prosecutors say amounted to racial profiling.

Arpaio is charged with contempt of court for failing to comply with an order from U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow in 2011 to stop "detaining any person based only on knowledge or reasonable belief ... that the person is unlawfully present within the United States."

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Arpaio, 85, the Republican sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., for 24 years, was a staunch opponent of illegal immigration and instituted policies that led some supporters to refer to him as the "toughest sheriff in America."

Snow's order effectively barred Arpaio, a local public servant, from enforcing federal immigration law.

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After years of legal proceedings, the criminal trial against Arpaio began Monday in Phoenix. Justice Department prosecutors argue that Arpaio's criminal contempt in defying Snow's order spanned for 18 months in 2012 and 2013.

Prosecutors argue that Arpaio fully understood the order and decided he would not abide by it. Defense attorneys say the judge's edict was unclear and inappropriate, The Arizona Republic reported Monday.

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The trial stems from a 2007 lawsuit that argued Arpaio singled out Hispanic residents of his county as part of an anti-immigration agenda. Snow's order stated that persons cannot be detained simply on suspicion that they may be in the United States illegally.

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The federal criminal case is the second against Arpaio on the issue. In May 2015, a judge held Arpaio in civil contempt on three charges -- and recommended that federal authorities charge him with criminal contempt.

The difference between criminal and civil contempt is intent. A person who unintentionally defies a judge's order can be found liable for civil contempt -- but one who willfully refuses to comply may be found guilty of criminal contempt.

Criminal charges against Arpaio were filed in October -- two weeks before he lost re-election as Maricopa County's sheriff to Democrat Paul Penzone.

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"He's being prosecuted for doing something that the federal government has always told [local authorities] to do," defense attorney Jack Wilenchik said last week. "It's an assault on logic to say that local law enforcement cannot even cooperate with federal authorities."

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Opponents argue, however, that it was not up to Arpaio to undertake federal deportation matters -- and that defying a federal judge's order is illegal.

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"These immigration raids tore our neighborhood apart," immigration advocate Lydia Guzman said. "His legend will be that he destroyed our community and he got busted for it."

The trial is expected to last until next week. If convicted, he could be sentenced to six months in prison.

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