PHOENIX - Federal prosecutors said Tuesday they would charge Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio with criminal contempt of court for ignoring a judge's orders to stop immigration patrols.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice, who are handling the case, also told Federal Judge Susan Bolton that they are investigating Arpaio for possible obstruction of justice, connected to the sheriff's investigation of a judge and failure to hand over evidence.
Bolton set a trial date in the contempt case for Dec. 6.
Arpaio's defense attorney, Mel McDonald, told the judge he would ask for an extension. McDonald said Arpaio, who was not in court Tuesday, would plead not guilty.
Arpaio will not be arrested nor have to personally enter a plea in court to the contempt charge, according to the judge.
If convicted, Arpaio could face up to six months in prison.
The one-hour court hearing comes the day before Arizona voters get their mail-in ballots for the November election.
Arpaio released a statement Tuesday afternoon, reading in part:
“First and foremost, it is clear that the corrupt Obama Justice Department is trying to influence my reelection as Sheriff of Maricopa County. It is no coincidence that this announcement comes 28 days before the election and the day before early voting starts. It is a blatant abuse of power and the people of Maricopa County should be as outraged as I am.
“As your elected Sheriff, my job is to enforce the law. Because enforcing illegal immigration laws is not politically correct, within the first 100 days of taking office, Obama put then-Attorney General Eric Holder in charge of pursuing a ‘racial profiling’ case against me – among other trumped up, failed legal pursuits – and eight years later they’re still pursuing the case.“Now, with Obama on his way out of office, he and DOJ officials know this is their last shot at taking me down. This highly unusual charge of criminal contempt against an elected local official should be seen for what is really is: a political maneuver by a corrupt Administration to damage me politically and a continuation of its War on Cops."
Polls show the 84-year-old Arpaio, running for a seventh term, is trailing his challenger, Democrat Paul Penzone, by as much as 10 percentage points.
The court action Tuesday means the sheriff will be criminally charged as soon as this week. He would not have to give up his office unless he is convicted.
Penzone released this statement:
“No one is above the law, and today’s announcement in court epitomizes the strength of the judicial system. The federal courts have been responsible and ethical in the oversight of these criminal violations by Sheriff Arpaio. I have utmost confidence that our voters will make the right decision to repair the damage that has been done to our community.”
Tuesday's hearing was the first since Federal Judge Murray Snow referred Arpaio for criminal prosecution in August. Snow has overseen the 9-year-old racial-profiling case against Arpaio.
"If evidence warrants, the government will seek an indictment," said Department of Justice attorney John Keller.
Snow ruled three years ago that Arpaio violated the constitutional rights of Latino drivers who are American citizens. The criminal contempt case stems from what the judge ruled was Arpaio's intentional failure to follow Snow's orders to stop racial profiling.
Outside the courthouse, McDonald repeated his defense that Arpaio may have ignored the judge's orders, but it wasn't intentional.