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Arpaio found guilty of criminal contempt for racial profiling

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, 85, has been found guilty of criminal contempt by a federal judge. The criminal misdemeanor could cost him a fine and land him in jail for six months.

Arpaio's supporters have said the criminal case was brought against "America's toughest sheriff" for political reasons and were hoping the Justice Department would drop the charges upon the change in administration, according to NPR. The Trump Administration did not drop the charges, however.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton ruled that Arpaio was in willful violation of a 2011 order by another federal judge. Arpaio and his department had been ordered to stop targeting Latino drivers for traffic stops and then detaining any unauthorized immigrants they found. The traffic stops, many argue, amounted to illegal racial profiling, and the Sheriff's Department did not have authority to hold people on immigration violations alone.

The Sheriff's department continued to target Latino drivers and wrongfully hold immigrants for a full 18 months after the order.

Arpaio was already found to be in civil contempt of court for continuing those practices, which he admitted doing. Civil contempt can result in daily fines compiling until the defendant complies with the court's orders. Criminal contempt involves willful refusal to follow a court's order and can result in both fines and incarceration.

Arpaio defended himself in the criminal contempt case by claiming that he and his command staff did not understand what they considered an unclear court order, and/or that poor communication resulted in their failure to follow the order. He denied willfully refusing to follow it.

Federal Judge Bolton rejected that defense. His sentencing is set for October 5.

Was Arpaio simply trying to cooperate with immigration authorities?

U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions has recently made clear that he expects all U.S. jurisdictions to assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by holding onto jailed unauthorized immigrants until ICE can review their cases for possible deportation, among other actions. As you may know, he has moved to withhold some federal funding from so-called "sanctuary" jurisdictions that refuse to do so.

What Sessions has demanded may not be wise, but it is legal enough. Arpaio did two things that were quite different from merely cooperating with ICE. First, he allegedly harassed Latino drivers simply because he believed they were more likely to be unauthorized immigrants.

Second, when he did discover unauthorized immigrants in his dragnet, he apparently kept them behind bars even when they hadn't committed any crime that justified their detention. (Unlawful presence in the U.S. is not a crime, and improper entry is a simple misdemeanor.)

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