The Justice Department said Tuesday that it will pursue a criminal contempt-of-court case against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Darren Hauck/European Pressphoto Agency)

The Justice Department will pursue a criminal contempt-of-court case against firebrand Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who a federal judge has said willfully defied his orders to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants without legal basis.

At a hearing in federal district court in Arizona on Tuesday, prosecutors with the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section told a judge they intend to proceed to trial against the Maricopa County sheriff on criminal charges, a department spokesman said. The judge ordered them to file the appropriate paperwork by Wednesday and set a trial date of Dec. 6, the spokesman said.

Mel McDonald, Arpaio’s attorney, said that Arpaio “vehemently denies that he was ever knowingly and willfully contemptuous of any court order” and said that he intends to fight the allegations.

The development thrusts Arpaio — a prominent Donald Trump supporter whose extreme stance on immigration has drawn condemnation from those who say his enforcement policy is racist, and praise from those who view him as tough on illegal immigration — back into the public eye as the presidential election approaches. He was ordered years ago to stop enforcing federal immigration law by detaining people believed to be in the country illegally without state charges.

In August, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow ruled that Arpaio was violating the court’s order and that he should be referred to another judge for criminal contempt proceedings. Snow’s order, which will form the basis of the charge against Arpaio, says the sheriff’s office “continued to stop and detain persons based on factors including their race, and frequently arrested and delivered such persons to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] when there were no state charges to bring against them.”

“Sheriff Arpaio did so based on the notoriety he received for, and the campaign donations he received because of, his immigration enforcement activity,” Snow wrote.

The hearing Tuesday marked the first time the Justice Department had announced that it would go forward with the case. The department also said it would not bring charges against three Arpaio associates because of “procedural defects” with their cases.

McDonald said he hopes to get the Dec. 6 date pushed back and to present the case to a jury rather than a judge. Prosecutors requested the judge set a cap on the possible penalty at six months. Arpaio is 84.

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