Contempt Charge Likely for Arizona Sheriff

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, a Democrat who succeeded Trump-pardoned Republican Joe Arpaio, is not complying with a court order to overhaul how the department investigates officer misconduct, a federal judge said Thursday.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

(CN) — A 2007 lawsuit over racial profiling continues to cause problems for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, with a federal judge signaling Thursday he will find Sheriff Paul Penzone in contempt for taking too long to investigate charges of misconduct among officers.

In a pointed rebuke after the U.S. Department of Justice asked U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow in March to order a contempt hearing, Snow said Penzone’s department is “clearly” out of compliance with his 2016 court order to overhaul the investigation process.

“Even if I believe everything in the brief is true, which I don’t, I would still find the sheriff in contempt,” Snow told the attorneys early in the hearing, referring to Penzone’s response to the Justice Department’s request for an order to show cause.

The Justice Department and the sheriff’s lawyers should focus on negotiating remedies, not the moot merits of a potential contempt case, Snow said.

Wednesday’s hearing stems from the 2007 arrest of Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican immigrant who sued the sheriff’s office and then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio claiming he was racially profiled.

From the beginning, Arpaio loudly and publicly refused to comply with court orders surrounding how his officers profile drivers and how his office investigated claims of abuse. Melendres’ class action led to a civil contempt case then a criminal contempt conviction for Arpaio, who was pardoned by President Donald Trump in 2017.

The firebrand self-described toughest sheriff in America, a Republican and staunch Trump supporter, was rejected by voters in favor of Democrat Penzone in 2016.

After Arpaio refused to comply with the courts, some control over the sheriff’s office was wrested away, including over how the department investigates and reports abuse cases. DOJ and Melendres’ attorneys believe the MCSO is skirting the rules by using non-standard statistical methods that minimize the number of abuse cases identified, they told the judge.

In January, the department had more than 2,000 misconduct cases open and an average investigation time of 552 days — far longer than the statutory limit of 180 days. The average length of investigations rose from 204 days in 2018 to 499 days in 2019, the government said in its March filing.

In addition, the department has not been entirely forthcoming about its tracking methods, about which they have made numerous representations, said Justice Department attorney Maureen Johnston.

“We believe some of those representations were, in fact, misrepresentations,” she said.

In a brief filed last week and again in court Thursday, attorneys for Penzone argued the department has taken steps to shorten investigation times.

“We are focusing on compliance with the court’s order,” said defense attorney Mary O’Grady of the Phoenix firm Osborn Maledon. “We know we have work to do, and we’re doing it, and we’d like to continue our effort in that direction.”

Justice Department lawyers also asked Snow to authorize discovery in the case, which he said he intends to do. Snow gave the sides a week to try to come to agreement on who should be deposed about what and which documents could be requested. He said he is very concerned about plaintiffs’ claims the sheriff’s department’s methods are not up to current statistical best practices.

Snow is not inclined to be patient.

“You’ve taken five years to get to 540 days,” Snow told the attorneys. “We’re simply not going to take that long to get to compliance.”

Snow will now schedule meetings with expert witnesses from both sides to assess their credibility. He hinted that a hearing on the order to show cause will likely be set for August, after the sides have a chance to work out details of discovery.

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