Blog of Rights

ACLU Reminds "America's Toughest Sheriff" That He's Not Above the Law

By Alessandra Soler, ACLU of Arizona at 11:06am

No one is above the law, not even Joe Arpaio, the media-hungry sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. His stunts include reinstituting chain gangs (they include women and juveniles), erecting a tent city where over 2,000 convicted men and women serve out their sentences in 120 degree desert heat, feeding prisoners only twice a day (he's bragged of serving green bologna), and forcing them to wear pink underwear.

Much of the ACLU's legal docket in Arizona is devoted to challenging Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MSCO) policies that violate the constitutional rights of women, prisoners, and immigrants — for starters. Arpaio has spent hundreds of thousands of local taxpayers' money defending his indefensible and unconstitutional practices.

Late yesterday in Phoenix the bell rang on round II in the ACLU's fight to force "Sheriff Joe" to follow the law. We asked a state court judge to find him in contempt for refusing to comply with a 2005 court order that clearly requires him and his staff to provide transport for the women incarcerated in his jails who are seeking abortions.

That 2005 order was the end result of four years that the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project and the ACLU of Arizona spent in court challenging an unwritten MSCO policy. Jail officials were prohibited from transporting an inmate for an abortion (note: the women foot the bill for the abortion) unless the inmate first obtained a lawyer, asked for a court hearing, and convinced a judge to grant her an order to end her pregnancy.

In August 2005, the Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, struck down the unwritten policy, holding that it violated women's reproductive rights and served "no legitimate penological purpose." The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld that decision; both the Arizona and the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But that hasn't stopped the guy who loves being known as "America's Toughest Sheriff" from flouting the law; imposing his morality on the women in his jails; advancing his political agenda; or burnishing his public image using taxpayer dollars. After the US Supreme Court refused to review the case, Arpaio told the Republic's Michael Kiefer that he disagreed with the decision and would "see what happens if the situation comes before me again."

It didn't take long. This past spring, an inmate we're referring to in our motion as "Mary Roe" and her attorney pleaded with Arpaio and his staff to transport her for an abortion appointment. Deputy Chief John MacIntyre, an Arpaio crony who's one of the architects of the policy, had been involved in the original case and knew the court's decision. Still, MacIntyre said — yes, you guessed it — that the quickest way for her client to be transported would be for her to get a court order.

Roe was eventually able to get the abortion, but the four-week delay resulted in her having to endure a much longer and more emotionally difficult procedure.

So now we're heading back into court to spell out the law for Sheriff Joe and his staff, yet again, and ensure that other women don't get this kind of runaround. Our motion asks the court to require the jail to post signs in both English and Spanish informing prisoners of their right to be transported. All employees would be required to sign a statement acknowledging that they have been informed of the law. And we're asking the court to assess penalties for this violation and for future violations of the court order should they occur.

For all of his law-and-order bluff, Arpaio clearly has no intention of abiding by his oath to uphold the law when it isn't doesn't suit him. So we'll do what it takes to force him to respect the constitutional rights of women, even if it means hitting him in one of his most sensitive spots … his pocketbook.

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