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Legally Speaking: Breaking down the likely arguments in Joe Arpaio’s contempt case

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Joe Arpaio might be out of a job but he isn’t out of the legal system yet.

He is no longer the sheriff of Maricopa County but he is still dealing with the consequences of his actions while in office. Although his successor, Paul Penzone, took his place (so to speak) in the long-lasting civil case regarding racial profiling, Arpaio still faces criminal contempt charges.

His trial is scheduled to begin in late April.

A charge of criminal contempt of court requires the prosecutor prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Arpaio was aware of Judge Murray Snow’s order to cease his immigration patrols, that the order was clear and definite and that Arpaio willfully disobeyed it.

As the cornerstone of its case, the prosecutor would like to use Arpaio’s confession he made on the stand while being questioned by Snow — the proverbial “smoking gun.” However, according to court documents, the defense team claims:

  • Arpaio’s confession was involuntary and he was coerced in making it
  • Improper promises were made to Arpaio that led him to believe he would avoid the criminal charges
  • His attorney failed to do their job and advise him that he could be criminally charged.

As such, the defense claims the smoking gun should be doused with water and then melted down. In other words, the confession should not be allowed in Arpaio’s criminal trial.

Now, you might be wondering how could the lead law enforcement officer of Maricopa County be “coerced” into confessing? How could he, who has been in law enforcement for years, not realize that he could face criminal charges if he confessed to not following a court order?

These are great questions and ones the assigned judge will want answers to.

Arpaio claims his confession in open court was the result of “psychological pressure” by Snow. In addition, since he was not allowed to leave the witness stand without the judge’s permission, he was “detained.”

Arpaio also asserts Snow “gave the impression that he was making the promise that if remedies were agreed upon in the civil matter, those remedies would extend to the criminal matter.”

Lastly, Arpaio claims his attorney never told him that he could face criminal charges.

Here is the bottom line: In order to use a confession, the prosecutor must be able to prove it was voluntary. How do you do that?

You look at the totality of the circumstances. According to Arpaio, while he was on the stand, he was pressured by the judge to confess, he was forced to stay on the stand and wasn’t free to leave, he was given false promises and his attorney failed to protect him.

Those circumstances do not paint the picture of someone who voluntarily and knowingly confessed to committing a crime.

If the criminal judge agrees, the confession will be thrown out and then the prosecutor would have to confess that his job to convict “America’s Toughest Sheriff” just became much more difficult.

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