The US Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to file criminal contempt-of-court charges against Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who defied court orders to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants without legal cause. The charges come less than a month before the 84-year-old's election race for his seventh term in office.
Along with the DOJ's Public Integrity Section, Prosecutor John Keller told a federal judge on Tuesday (11 October) that the government will proceed to trial against the Maricopa County sheriff
A spokesman for the department said the judge ordered that paperwork be filed by Wednesday (12 October) and scheduled a trial date of 6 December, The Washington Post reported.
Arpaio's attorney, Mel McDonald, said his client "vehemently denies that he was ever knowingly and will-fully contemptuous of any court order" and said he plans to fight the charges. The Washington Post also noted that Arpaio was ordered some years ago to stop detaining people believed to be undocumented without state charges.
According to The Associated Press (AP), Arpaio has since acknowledged that he violated the order to stop immigration patrols, but maintains it was not intentional.
McDonald said he will try to get the trial pushed back. He also hopes to present the case to a jury instead of a judge. "We believe the sheriff, being an elected official, should be judged by his peers," he said.
US District Judge, G Murray Snow, ruled in August that Arpaio violated the court's order and that his office "continued to stop and detain persons based on factors including their race, and frequently arrested and delivered such persons to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] when there were no state charges to bring against them."
Snow added: "Sheriff Arpaio did so based on the notoriety he received for, and the campaign donations he received because of, his immigration enforcement activity." He ordered Arpaio be referred to another judge for criminal contempt charges, the Post reported.
McDonald said his client will not be arrested and no mugshot will be taken. Arpaio, who will plead not guilty, could face a sentence of up to six months if he is convicted of misdemeanour contempt.
According to the AP, authorities are also considering a possible obstruction of justice – a felony –charges against the sheriff that could lead to more severe punishments. Obstruction of justice carries a sentence of 15 to 37 months in prison and would not allow Arpaio to serve in office if he is convicted.
Two Arpaio aides and a former attorney suspected of hiding nearly 1,500 IDs in an investigation into whether officers took things during traffic stops may also face obstruction charges.