Donald Trump’s first presidential pardon went on August 25 to Joe Arpaio, the long-time Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, first elected in 1992 to head Arizona’s biggest local law agency and re-elected five times, before losing a sixth re-election bid last year.
Arpaio received a “full and unconditional” pardon for his July 31 conviction on criminal contempt charges, (he’s due to be sentenced October 5), and any further offenses for which he might be charged with in a long-running civil rights case for allegedly unconstitutional or illegal practices aimed at illegal aliens (Arpaio drew a civil contempt conviction from another federal judge during a related earlier lawsuit).
On Twitter, Trump praised Arpaio for over 50 years of law enforcement service (he was a federal drug law enforcer for 25 years before joining the Phoenix-based sheriff’s office). In turn, Arpaio thanked Trump, while noting he had not requested a pardon. And, despite the presidential action, Arpaio is continuing to press to have his criminal contempt conviction overturned.
Now 85, Arpaio is no stranger to controversy. Calling himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” he garnered massive publicity for such supposedly tough-on-crime initiatives as housing prisoners in tents during triple-digit temperatures, sending inmates out on chain gangs, and even forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear (supposedly to keep them from taking prison-issued apparel home with them when released, though opponents claim it was to humiliate inmates).
He was best known, however, for his aggressive stance towards illegal immigration, which included heavy patrolling of predominantly Hispanic areas, creating an illegal immigration-focused volunteer “posse” that included a number of action-movie and TV show performers, and interrogating drivers stopped for traffic infractions about their immigration status.
These measures drew several large-scale lawsuits against him or his department, both from private and government plaintiffs alleging racial profiling. In a 2007 lawsuit (Melendres v. Arpaio) involving a Mexican tourist claiming he was detained without cause for nine hours, the American Civil Liberties Union and others first won class-action status and an injunction against such practices, and in 2013, after a six-day trial before a federal judge, a ruling that Sheriff Arpaio and his office had committed constitutional and civil rights violations. (The judge also awarded plaintiffs and their lawyers $4.4 million for their costs in the marathon litigation.)
The U.S. Department of Justice soon joined the case, and the presiding judge eventually ordered Arpaio to stop racial profiling, revise other practices, and accept a federal monitor to supervise compliance. But Arpaio balked, leading the first trial judge in May 2016 to hold him in civil contempt, and to ask Justice Department civil rights officials to bring a criminal contempt case against the sheriff for ignoring the court’s previous orders. (They did so late last October, just two weeks before the election which unseated him.)
At the end of this July, a second federal judge hearing the criminal contempt case (U.S. v. Arpaio) found him guilty of having “willfully violated an order” issued in the Melendres case. After the pardon, Arpaio asked the judge to void the conviction and scrap the decision against him; he’s also appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the contempt case should have been decided by a jury, as he requested, rather than by a judge; the high court has not yet responded.