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Former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio convicted of criminal contempt

Former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio ignored a judge’s order to stop detaining people because he merely suspected them of being undocumented immigrants. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff whose extreme stance on illegal immigration made him a household name, was convicted Monday of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a judge’s order to stop detaining people because he merely suspected them of being undocumented immigrants.

U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton wrote that Arpaio had shown a “flagrant disregard” for the court’s command and that his attempt to pin the conduct on those who worked for him rang hollow.

“Not only did Defendant abdicate responsibility, he announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise,” Bolton wrote.

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A Justice Department spokeswoman said Arpaio faces up to six months in prison at his sentencing, which is scheduled for October 5. Arpaio’s attorney said he would appeal in order to get a trial by jury. He had been convicted after a trial in front of Bolton.

Watch: New sheriff shutting down Arpaio's tent city (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

"Today, Judge Susan Bolton violated the United States Constitution by issuing her verdict without even reading it to the Defendant in public court," Jack Wilenchik, Arpaio's attorney, said in a statement. "Her verdict is contrary to what every single witness testified in the case. Arpaio believes that a jury would have found in his favor, and that it will. . . . Joe Arpaio is in this for the long haul, and he will continue his fight to vindicate himself, to prove his innocence, and to protect the public."

The legal saga surrounding Arpaio, 85, dates back years. In 2011, the then-sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County was enjoined by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow from detaining people he thought to be illegal immigrants, when they were not charged with any other crimes, as part of a lawsuit. Prosecutors alleged that he continued to do so, and last year, the Justice Department decided to pursue a criminal contempt-of-court case against him.

By then, Arpaio was known as a vigorous Donald Trump supporter — his strong desire to crack down on illegal immigration much in line with that of the president. But critics said his policy of detaining people on mere suspicion was racist and illegal, and his refusal to honor a court's order to stop was brazen. He was also well known for forcing his inmates to wear pink underwear and sleep outdoors in his Tent City Jail.

Wilenchik said in the statement that the judge’s order enjoining Arpaio was “not clear,” and suggested that Arpaio was merely doing what others do routinely: turning over those in the country illegally to the U.S. Border Patrol.

“Numerous law enforcement agencies also continue to do this,” Wilenchik said. “In fact, the DOJ now goes after agencies that refuse to do this.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened jurisdictions that do not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but he has not directed local law enforcement to stop and detain people without a lawful reason to do so.

Bolton wrote that another judge's order to Arpaio was clear and that there was evidence he violated it willfully — citing some of Arpaio's own public comments as evidence. She said even if subordinates actually did the detaining, it was only at Arpaio's direction and by Arpaio's failure to tell them otherwise.

"The evidence shows a flagrant disregard for Judge Snow's order," Bolton wrote.

Arpaio, who had long weathered criticisms about his conduct, lost his reelection bid soon after he was charged with criminal contempt. The new sheriff, Paul Penzone, said Bolton’s verdict was “a conclusion to the disservice and distractions caused by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.”

"As for this office, we remain steadfast in our efforts to serve the needs of public safety, to improve quality of relations with the community and to ensure that the men and women of this organization have the utmost respect for the law and the authority for which we are empowered," Penzone said.

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.