How the People of Maricopa County Brought Down ‘America’s Toughest Sheriff’

Almost 10 years ago, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres filed a lawsuit in Arizona after being illegally detained by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Mr. Ortega Melendres was one of many people who dreamed of holding then-Sheriff Joseph M. Arpaio accountable for his reign of terror over Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and surrounding areas.

A decade later, his dream is a reality.

Arpaio, who held the sheriff’s office for 24 years, stands convicted of criminal contempt of court. The man who declared himself “America’s toughest sheriff” — who racially profiled Latinos and detained people unconstitutionally and in defiance of a federal court order, who tried to hold himself above the Constitution and the rule of law — has ended his career in disgrace, voted out of office and now a convicted criminal.

The story of how Joe Arpaio ended up a convict is the story of how a community rose up to assert people’s rights. It’s also a tale of how a painstaking, sometimes maddeningly slow, legal process ultimately stopped abusive and unconstitutional practices. This story stands as a warning for those government officials in Washington and in state capitals who are now calling for local police agencies to act as immigration enforcers: Don’t be like Joe.

These officials, including President Trump and Gov. Abbott of Texas, should listen carefully to the story of Joe Arpaio. That story begins in the mid-2000s, when he decided to turn the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office into a full-fledged immigration agency. He jumped to act on anti-Latino constituent “tips” urging him to do something about the Spanish-speaking employees at this restaurant or the Latino day laborers in the parking lot at the hardware store. Rather than explain to these complainants that there was no crime here, Arpaio implemented policies to find and detain undocumented immigrants based on race discrimination and illegal detentions.

Following Arpaio’s direction, deputies of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office began to target Latino drivers and passengers in cars and trucks, pulling them over on the pretext of a traffic violation and then questioning them about their immigration status. At first, deputies lurked outside of places like a church in the town of Cave Creek, which ran a day laborer center where workers connected with people who wanted to hire them. Soon Arpaio spread his policies more broadly, running his infamous immigration sweeps by sending up to 100 deputies into a neighborhood — usually a predominantly Latino one — and conducting traffic stops for an entire day or weekend.

Arpaio himself would show up during these sweeps, posing for the press and parading frightened men and women who had been arrested in the traffic stops before the cameras by putting them handcuffed into open-air corrals. During these sweeps, the vast majority of people arrested and detained were never charged with any crime. Instead, they were turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to decide whether to start deportation proceedings.

But then something extraordinary happened: Community leaders began to fight back.

Arpaio’s immigration policies violated the Constitution in two ways. Deputies were targeting people for traffic stops because of their ethnicity, which violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. And deputies detained people when there was no reason to believe that they had committed any crime, which violates the Fourth Amendment. People were so frightened of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office — the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them — that some avoided leaving the house altogether.

But then something extraordinary happened: Community leaders began to fight back. With tremendous courage, they painstakingly documented the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s civil rights violations, devoting entire weekends to filming traffic stops and days and nights to running volunteer hotlines to field countless desperate calls from people reporting that a family member had been taken by the sheriff’s deputies.

And in 2007, Mr. Ortega Melendres filed a lawsuit seeking to hold Sheriff Arpaio to account after he was arrested during a traffic stop and detained for eight hours, even though he had a valid U.S. visa. In that case, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arizona, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the law firm Covington & Burling LLP ultimately won five groundbreaking court rulings in the federal district court and two in the federal appeals court. The first major victory came in December 2011, when the district court issued a preliminary injunction — a legal ruling that Arpaio’s policy of detaining people based solely on suspicion that they were undocumented immigrants violated the Fourth Amendment — and ordered an immediate halt to that practice.

It was this 2011 ruling that ultimately led to Arpaio’s criminal downfall. Even as the Ortega Melendres case continued, Arpaio’s deputies continued to detain people just because of their immigration status in violation of the Constitution and the 2011 court order. In 2016, the federal court ruled that Arpaio was in civil contempt of court for repeatedly violating the 2011 order. This led the U.S. Justice Department’s public integrity unit to bring a separate criminal contempt charge against Arpaio, based on his deliberate decision not to obey the court’s December 2011 order. On July 31, 2017, Arpaio was convicted. His sentencing is set for October 5.

During the civil and criminal contempt trials, Joe Arpaio showed his two faces. On the witness stand, he appeared meek and claimed that he was unaware of what was happening in his own agency. His constant refrain was that he wasn’t responsible for the violations of the court’s order because he delegated the running of the agency to his deputies.

But the other face of Joe Arpaio came through in video recordings of his public statements to the press and his many donors and supporters. This Arpaio boasted that no one would tell him what to do. This Arpaio expressed defiance of the federal district court. This Arpaio ordered a sergeant to detain a group of immigrants without any criminal charge, even after the sergeant protested that it would violate the court order because Arpaio wanted to get to the jail and personally give a TV interview to show off his arrests.

This story did not end well for Arpaio, and each chapter inflicted terrible harms on the people of Maricopa County and civil rights and civil liberties. These are the same harms that will flow from President Trump’s executive order, which seeks to penalize “sanctuary cities,” and Texas’s Senate Bill 4, a draconian and unconstitutional state law that punishes police chiefs and sheriffs who decline to detain people based only on their immigration status. Politicians who are pushing for these backward policies should heed the lesson that Joe Arpaio learned the hard way.

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Joe Owens

A case where a good man was convicted for detaining and deporting illegals by George Soros, and every racist nut ignorant enough to think illegal criminals are entitled to anything in America.

Anonymous

Actually, no, Mr. Soros had no hand in the prosecution of the CRIMINAL charges against Arpaio. Whether or not he contributed to the ACLU or any other organization who pursued this case is his prerogative. But the ACLU doesn't take marching orders from Soros, or any other donor. This wasn't a case like Thiel and Hogan vs. Gawker, where Thiel completely bankrolled someone's lawsuit because he didn't like who they were suing.

Also, what do you mean by 'every racist nut'? The protections afforded by the Constitution do not take into account whether or not someone is a citizen or even a legal immigrant. The protections afforded by the Constitution are there for exactly this line of thought: we, as Americans, treat people with respect, dignity, and due process. If you don't believe we should, then, quite frankly, you do not believe in a core tenet of the United States' Constitution and maybe you should reflect upon that. Having said that, and understanding there are fringe cases, it seems that someone who thinks people should be jailed simply because of the color of their skin (remember, Arpaio and his deputies had no proof that many, if not most, of the people they detained were here illegally) is the actual racist nut, not a "good man", as you claim.

"Not everything that’s illegal — meaning against the law or violating the law — is a crime. There are civil violations, like when you get a parking ticket. ‘Unlawful presence’ is one of these. You don't go to jail or receive any other criminal punishment for being in the country illegally — you get deported." - Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the LIBERTARIAN (I capitalized that for you so you can't claim it came from a left-wing or liberal politician/lawmaker/etc.) Cato Institute

And here's the source: http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2017/mar/15/florida-conference-catholic-bishops/being-united-states-unlawfully-crime/

And since I'm *fairly* sure you'll claim this is "fake news" or somesuch and not bother enlightening yourself by reading it, let me pull out this highlight at the bottom:

"It is generally accurate that the simple act of being in the United States illegally is not, by itself, a crime. Rather, it’s a civil violation that puts the individual at risk for deportation, but not for criminal prosecution. However, it’s worth noting that someone who is unlawfully present might still have committed a related crime by entering the United States after having been deported, for instance, or entering in an illegal manner."

TL;DR: BEING IN THE US ILLEGALLY IS NOT A CRIME. HOW YOU GOT HERE MIGHT BE, BUT THAT IS A MATTER FOR DUE PROCESS TO DETERMINE, NOT BLANKET DETAINMENT AND/OR DEPORTATION ON SUSPICIONS YOU "MIGHT HAVE". JOE ARPAIO, ON THE OTHER HAND, BLATANTLY DISREGARDED COURT RULINGS THINKING HE KNEW BETTER THAN THEM AND IN THE PROCESS PUT HIMSELF IN CONTEMPT OF THE COURT. HE KNOWINGLY AND WILLINGLY COMMITTED A CRIME.

In closing, I would highly recommend to you to understand the difference between criminal courts and charges, immigration courts, and civil courts, Mr. Owens. Have a nice evening.

Dr. JSH

The US is generous in that it extends constitutional protections to non-citizens and has a long record of doing so.

The fact that you don't like undocumented immigrants having constitutional rights doesn't means they're not entitled to them. The US you insist exists would be unconstitutional. "Equal protection under the laws" is meaningful and actionable.

Don

Excellent article Cecillia. Congratulations to those in Maricopa County for supporting those in the community that suffered from the fragrant violations by the sheriff and the contempt he showed towards the American Constitution and the judiciary. Will POTUS be next?

Anonymous

Thank God he's done. He cost the city millions of dollars!!

Anonymous

Soros funded Maricopa Strong to get Arpaio beaten in the 2016 election. Five years after the 2011 ruling. But don't bother with facts.

Anonymousjose

This man broke the law to apply his own version of justice he is a hypocrit, he deserves the max penalty which he will not receive.

Brokegstring

The money that went from Maricopa County coffers to settle a string of lawsuits *against* the County, directly because of Joe's political agenda, could have been better spent on the needs of the County. The nature of "party politics", across the entire country, repeatedly causes misdirection of funds that could be better spent on things other than political entrenchment. Joe's style ran it's course, the County paid dearly for Joe and his act.

Anonymous

I am glad Joe is gone. He was more than someone who simply violated civil rights. He was beginning to believe he was above all laws and his corrupted ways were beginning to become ingrained in the culture of the law enforcement agency he ran.

Unfortunately, I don't believe his replacement is any better. He seems just like Arpaio but on the other side of the aisle. Penzone told us he closed tents. Yet inmates continue to be housed in tents. He told us he is saving millions by closing tents. Yet the AZ Republic clearly proved this claim to be false. He told us he is working with the federal monitor to follow all directives from Judge Snow. Yet a deputy recently shot and killed a Hispanic person after conveniently turning off his mandated body cam. He swore he would operate a safe and respectful jail system. Yet Hispanic inmates are still being severely beaten in the facilities he runs.

I applaud everyone who worked to expose Joe Arpaio. It took courage and patience. I'm just not convinced Penzone's "One MCSO" is any better.

Anonymous

Some of them try to do their job and don't let them do it, that's why the illegals come here to do and demand benefits and rights that they are not intiled to have

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