Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, once known as “America’s toughest sheriff,” was back Monday where has long been most at home — in the spotlight — although not for the reasons he would have preferred.
Months after losing his re-election bid, the 85-year-old former Maricopa County sheriff went on trial in Phoenix on misdemeanor criminal contempt-of-court charges, a case his foes have praised as long overdue and fans have denounced as a “political prosecution.”
Federal prosecutors argued that Mr. Arpaio willfully disobeyed a 2011 injunction barring him from enforcing federal immigration laws by detaining 170 suspected illegal aliens from December 2011 to May 2013.
After U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement refused to accept the suspects in 2012, the sheriff’s office tried a workaround by taking them to Border Patrol.
“He thought he could get away with it,” prosecutor Victor Salgado said in his opening argument, according to ABC15. “He never thought this day would come.”
Defense attorney Jack Wilenchik called the prosecution of Mr. Arpaio “shameful and outrageous,” as reported by the Phoenix New Times.
Mr. Arpaio became a national figure during his 24 years as sheriff with headline-grabbing moves such as requiring prisoners to wear pink underwear and erecting a tent city for offenders.
The trial has gained national attention with the defense’s attempt to call Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a witness, which the Justice Department has resisted, saying Mr. Sessions was a senator during the relevant period and that the defense has failed to show extraordinary circumstances.
The proceedings, playing out before a packed courtroom, began on Monday with a victory for the prosecution: Hours beforehand, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Mr. Arpaio’s request for a jury trial.
Instead, the former lawman will have his fate decided by U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Bolton, a Clinton appointee, in a trial expected to last eight days. If found guilty, Mr. Arpaio faces a maximum six months in jail.
The prosecution called former Arpaio counsel Tim Casey, who said he told the sheriff that he must either arrest detainees on state charges or release them, instead of detaining them solely on suspicion of being in the country illegally.
Mr. Casey said he told the sheriff and his subordinates, “Arrest or release. Those are the options,” The Arizona Republic reported.
Opinion on the case is sharply divided. James Fotis, president of the National Center for Police Defense, accused the Justice Department of “deep state bias,” noting that prosecutors filed the charges two weeks before the Nov. 8 election.
“With over 55 years of law enforcement experience, Sheriff Arpaio has always followed and enforced the laws on the books. Now, the DOJ wants to put him in prison for enforcing the very laws he swore an oath to uphold,” Mr. Fotis said in a Monday statement.
The six-term Republican sheriff lost his seventh bid for office to Democrat Paul Penzone, a former police officer, by 56 percent to 44 percent. The new sheriff has since taken down the tent city.
After the loss, Mr. Arpaio started a conservative nonprofit called the Sheriff Joe Arpaio Action Fund to advocate on issues such as illegal immigration and Second Amendment rights. “I’m not retired, that’s for sure,” he said.
In a pro-and-con, columnists for The Arizona Republic said Mr. Arpaio was guilty of violating the December 2011 preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow, but they disagreed on the punishment.
Columnist Elvia Diaz called for prison, saying she wanted the elderly former sheriff to “go through the same hell that he forced Latinos to live, the same agony and torture of an uncertain future.” Op-ed writer Laurie Roberts argued for leniency.
Ms. Roberts said the former sheriff has “already lost what he loved most” with his election defeat and his sentence of “irrelevance.”
“Plenty of people are out for Arpaio’s blood,” she said. “They’d give him life if they could.”
The charges stem from a 2007 class-action lawsuit brought by Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office arguing that Sheriff Arpaio had engaged in racial profiling by detaining Hispanics based solely on suspicion of their legal status.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.