Prosecutors use Joe Arpaio’s immigration talk against him

Joe Arpaio

Joe Arpaio

PHOENIX (AP) – Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's criminal trial opened Monday over his defiance of the courts in traffic patrols that targeted immigrants, marking the most aggressive effort to hold the former lawman of metro Phoenix accountable for tactics that critics say racially profiled Latinos.

In opening arguments, prosecutors displayed comments Arpaio made in news releases and during TV interviews in which he bragged about immigration enforcement, aiming to prove that he should be found guilty of misdemeanor contempt of court.

Arpaio's defense lawyer vigorously disputed that a person with nearly 60 years in law enforcement would violate a court order, putting the blame on a former attorney who gave bad legal advice.

Critics hope the eight-day trial in federal court in Phoenix will bring a long-awaited comeuppance for the defiant 85-year-old who led crackdowns that divided immigrant families and escaped accountability.

His tactics drew fierce opponents as well as enthusiastic supporters nationwide who championed what they considered a tough-on-crime approach, including forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and housing them in tents outside in the desert heat.

Arpaio spent nine of his 24 years in office doing the sort of local immigration enforcement that President Donald Trump has advocated. To build his highly touted deportation force, Trump is reviving a long-standing program that deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration law.

Arpaio's lawyers say the former sheriff is charged with a crime for cooperating with U.S. immigration officials, which the Trump administration now encourages.

His legal troubles played a major role in voters turning him out of office in November after a campaign in which he appeared alongside Trump at several rallies in Arizona.

Now, Trump is in office and Arpaio is on trial.

If convicted, Arpaio could face up to six months in jail, though lawyers who have followed his case doubt that a man of his age would be put behind bars.

The former six-term sheriff of metro Phoenix has acknowledged defying a judge's 2011 order in a racial profiling lawsuit by prolonging the patrols for months. But he insists it was not intentional. To win a conviction, prosecutors must prove he violated the order on purpose.

Unlike other local police leaders who left immigration enforcement to U.S. authorities, Arpaio made hundreds of arrests in traffic patrols that sought out immigrants and business raids in which his officers targeted immigrants who used fraudulent IDs to get jobs.

His immigration powers were eventually stripped away by the courts and federal government, culminating with a judge ruling in 2013 that Arpaio's officers racially profiled Latinos.

It's not known whether Arpaio will testify in his defense.