- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been spared prosecution on a contempt-of-court charge for refusing to hand over 50 hard drives from a secret investigation, eliminating one legal problem for the lawman as he prepares to go on trial in the spring on a separate contempt count.

The ruling Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton backed up claims made two months ago by prosecutors that the statute of limitations bars them from pushing a criminal contempt case against Arpaio and top sheriff’s aide Jerry Sheridan for withholding the hard drives.

The ruling, however, doesn’t put Arpaio in the clear.

He still faces an April 4 trial on a misdemeanor contempt charge for prolonging his signature immigration patrols for 17 months after a judge in a racial profiling case had ordered them stopped.

And prosecutors said in October that they are conducting obstruction-of-justice investigations against Arpaio for withholding the hard drives and against two sheriff’s aides and an Arpaio lawyer for concealing evidence in a separate investigation into alleged officer misconduct. Obstruction of justice is a felony that carries a punishment of 15 months to 37 months in prison.

What’s uncertain at this point is how the Justice Department in a new White House will handle Arpaio’s case. Arpaio campaigned and shared the stage with Donald Trump on several occasions last year, and the sheriff has similar views on immigration as the president-elect’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions.

Mel McDonald, an attorney representing Arpaio in the contempt case, declined to comment on whether the sheriff was planning on seeking a pardon from Trump.

McDonald said Tuesday’s decision was expected and that the federal government hasn’t provided him an update on the obstruction investigations.

“I can’t guess what the government will do. But if they ever did anything, we will meet them in court,” McDonald said. “He did not obstruct anything.”

The U.S. Justice Department didn’t immediately return a call Wednesday seeking an update on its obstruction investigations.

The 84-year-old lawman who became a national political figure by cracking down on illegal immigration and jailing inmates in tents is leaving office in three weeks after losing his bid for a seventh term.

Arpaio, who has pleaded not guilty to the charge, acknowledged the contempt violation but said it wasn’t intentional. He could face up to six months in jail if conviction of contempt.

Bolton also officially dismissed a criminal contempt case against Sheridan, sheriff’s Capt. Steve Bailey and Arpaio attorney Michele Iafrate for concealing nearly 1,500 IDs in an investigation into whether sheriff’s deputies pocketed items during traffic stops. The judge also found the statute of limitation prevented a contempt charge against the trio.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow recommended the criminal contempt charges earlier this year after concluding three years earlier that Arpaio’s officers had racially profiled Latinos.

He ordered Arpaio in 2015 to turn over hard drives from a secret investigation that the sheriff’s foes said targeted the judge in an unsuccessful attempt to discredit him.

When Arpaio’s office refused to hand over the drives, Snow scolded sheriff’s officials and ordered officers from the U.S. Marshals Service to retrieve them from a sheriff’s evidence-storage office.

The judge also ordered marshals to seize the nearly 1,500 IDs that were concealed from investigators examining allegations that Arpaio’s officers pocketed items during traffic stops and busts of smuggling safe houses.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.

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