The United States Department of Justice has announced it will pursue a criminal contempt charge against Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, for violating a federal court’s orders in a racial-profiling case.
Prosecutors say Arpaio, a.k.a. “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” has repeatedly defied a 2013 order to cease his infamous immigration patrols after a US district judge found his deputies were illegally targeting Latinos.
Controversy with Arpaio’s office began in 2007, when Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist legally visiting the United States, was stopped by Maricopa deputies and unlawfully detained for more than nine hours. The case eventually grew to incorporate complaints from two Chicagoan siblings who claimed to have been profiled by Arpaio’s deputies because of their Latino ethnicity, and an assistant to former Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon whose Latino husband says he was detained and cited as white motorists passing by were not.
Arpaio could face up to six months in jail if convicted of misdemeanor contempt.
Aside from his unsavory performance on the job, the sheriff is known as a continued proponent of “birtherism”—the idea that US president Barack Obama was born overseas, and is thus ineligible for office—a position recently and publicly abandoned by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. He first rose to national prominence in 2010, then a vocal critic of the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law, which was considered one of the broadest and strictest laws clamping down on undocumented immigrants in US history. But the apex of his notoriety perhaps centers on his implementation of so-called “tent cities”—outdoor prisons where inmates are regularly subjected to heat upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The announcement comes less than a month ahead of Election Day in the United States, capping off a campaign cycle where immigration and xenophobia have taken center stage. Arpaio himself has taken a visible role on the side of anti-immigration politics, appearing alongside Trump during several campaign stops over the last year.
“First and foremost, it is clear that the corrupt Obama Justice Department is trying to influence my re-election as sheriff of Maricopa County,” Arpaio has responded to the charge in a statement. “It is no coincidence that this announcement comes 28 days before the election and the day before early voting starts. It is a blatant abuse of power and the people of Maricopa County should be as outraged as I am.”
Outside the courthouse, more than 100 protesters congregated to protest Arpaio’s continued policing practices. “I’m here to protest against Arpaio because he should be in jail,” 16-year-old Sagal Hassan told The Arizona Republic. “He’s not above the law. I am tired of him harassing Latinos and intimidating the Latino community. He needs to be elected out of office.”