PHOENIX (Reuters) - Former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his hard-line stand against illegal immigrants, willfully violated a judge’s order stemming from a racial profiling case, a federal prosecutor said on Monday as trial opened in Arpaio’s contempt of court trial.
A defense attorney called the case against Arpaio “ridiculous” and said the 85-year-old ex-lawman was just doing his job.
Arpaio, who was ousted from office in an election last November, is charged in U.S. District Court in Phoenix with contempt of court. Prosecutors say he defied a 2011 injunction that barred his deputies from stopping and detaining motorists solely on the suspicion of being in the country illegally.
During his opening remarks to the court, federal prosecutor Victor Salgado said the controversial traffic stops continued for about 18 months, with 170 people wrongfully detained.
“He knew that the order was out there,” federal prosecutor Victor Salgado said during his opening statement. “He never thought this day would come.”
Defense lawyer Dennis Wilenchik said the six-term sheriff would never have intentionally violated a court order and was simply carrying out his responsibilities as he understood them.“This case is ridiculous and it is an assault on logic,” Wilenchik said.
Arpaio, a nationally known figure who styled himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” during 24 years in office, criticized former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department when he was charged. He said at the time that Democrats were playing politics during his 2016 campaign for reelection as sheriff.
He faces up to six months in jail if convicted. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton will render a verdict following proceedings that are expected to take at least two weeks.
Arpaio already has been cited by another judge for civil contempt for the continued traffic stops in the underlying profiling case. That judge found his office was guilty of racially profiling Latino drivers.
The ex-sheriff has admitted to the civil contempt, but said his actions were inadvertent and not willful or intentional - standards that would need to be proved for a criminal prosecution.
Several key rulings preceded Monday’s trial. Bolton has ruled that Arpaio’s words in the media and elsewhere can be used against him in court and that two people who were stopped by deputies would be allowed to testify.
It was not known if Arpaio would take the stand in his own defense at the trial.
Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Dan Grebler, Dan Whitcomb and David Gdregorio