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Trump, Sheriff Joe And The Thrill Of Arbitrary Power

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Trump, Sheriff Joe And The Thrill Of Arbitrary Power


Reprinted with permission from Creators.


Three days before Donald Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, he suggested that the former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff was “convicted for doing his job.” In reality, Arpaio was convicted for doing someone else’s job by enforcing federal immigration law.

When a federal judge told him to cut it out, Arpaio openly defied the order. By giving a pass to Arpaio’s criminal contempt, the president reveals the hollowness of his supposed commitment to law and order.

Beginning in 2007, specially trained Maricopa County deputies had authority under Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to detain people they believed to be in the country illegally. But after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) revoked that authority in 2009, Arpaio’s deputies could legally detain people only if they reasonably suspected they were involved in criminal activity, as opposed to a civil violation of federal immigration law.

U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow made that point clear in a 2011 preliminary injunction, ordering the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) to stop “detaining persons for further investigation without reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed.” Responding to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Snow said “MCSO and all of its officers are hereby enjoined from detaining any person based only on knowledge or reasonable belief, without more, that the person is unlawfully present within the United States.”

It is clear that Arpaio understood the meaning of Snow’s injunction. “If you just believe or you know that [someone] is in the country unlawfully,” MCSO’s lawyer explained to the sheriff, “you cannot detain him based on that alone. You either are to have an arrest based on state charges or you release. Those are the options.”

Arpaio, whose reputation, local popularity, and electoral success depended largely on his efforts to catch illegal immigrants, did not like those options. He therefore decided to ignore the injunction, and he made no secret of that decision.

“I’m still going to arrest illegal aliens coming into this country,” Arpaio said on PBS in 2012. “I’m going to continue to enforce state laws and federal laws,” he told Fox News.

“Nothing has changed,” Arpaio told Univision. According to a 2012 MCSO press release, “Arpaio remains adamant about the fact that his office will continue to enforce both state and federal illegal immigration laws.”

The sheriff was true to his word. After Snow issued the preliminary injunction in December 2011 and before he made it permanent in May 2013, the MCSO’s so-called Human Smuggling Unit (HSU) turned over to ICE 171 people who were not charged with a crime.

It is not hard to see why another federal judge, Susan Bolton, concluded last month that Arpaio had “willfully violated” Snow’s order, making him guilty of criminal contempt. He was scheduled to be sentenced in October until Trump’s pardon let him off.

Trump thinks Arpaio, an early supporter of his presidential campaign, is a “great law enforcement person” who “was treated unbelievably unfairly.” The important thing for Trump is that Arpaio, like him, is “very strong on illegal immigration.”

A 2011 report from the Justice Department gives you a sense of what Arpaio’s strength looked like in practice. Examining traffic stops by MCSO deputies, the DOJ found that Latino drivers were “four to nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers.”

According to the DOJ, about one-fifth of the HSU’s reports on traffic stops, “almost all of which involved Latino drivers, contained information indicating that the stops were conducted in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures.” Many of the people detained by Arpaio’s deputies were, like the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, in the country legally but targeted for harassment because of their skin color or accents.

Strong men like Arpaio and Trump believe enforcing the law may require breaking it. But to those who suffer the consequences, that kind of strength looks a lot like lawlessness.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.




  1. yabbed September 2, 2017

    Thrill is relative. The thrill of pardon power for Trump won’t be comparable to the thrill of power of his impeachment for the rest of us. We will be downright joyous to see the criminal creep put in prison by the NY Attorney General.

    1. Dapper Dan September 2, 2017

      Amen to that. Also Trumps pardon of Arpaio may ultimately be overturned. The Judge in that case is absolutely livid and feels 45 is deliberately obstructing justice by interfering with a pardon before sentencing. Everyday this idiot POTUS is digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself. Thank You Vladimir Putin for attacking our election leaving us with a very mentally ill man ????

      1. Beethoven September 2, 2017

        There is a good argument to be made that Trump’s pardon is invalid, though I don’t know how the Supreme Court will ultimately rule on it. But technically, Arpaio was not convicted of a “crime” (that is, an act that was made criminal by an act of a legislative body). Rather, he was convicted of ignoring a valid order of a judge of the federal judiciary, who found that Arpaio was acting contrary to the U.S. Constitution and was openly defying the authority of the U.S. Constitution and the authority of the U.S. government. If the President can pardon anyone he chooses, for any reason, for defying the authority of the U.S. government, then what is to stop him from creating a dictatorship?

        1. Dapper Dan September 2, 2017

          The argument can be made we do have Congress that while in the GOP hands they’re not ready to abdicate authority to this illegitimate President. I honestly believe that the US Constitution will prevail and Trump will be impeached and prosecuted once Mueller finishes his thorough investigation. Arpaios pardon will also be overturned and he’ll be sentenced accordingly. If these events don’t happen then yes we’ll have fallen into a dictatorship

  2. marriea September 2, 2017

    Wonder how Trump will react when he is impeached on what might be money laundering for the Russians.
    But impeachment alone is not good enough.
    I hope he is convicted by the Senate and kicked out.
    And then, on top of that, he is still kowtowing to the Russians for only God knows what.
    His family is probably involved especially his sons.
    So that means if their father goes down, so will they.
    I can only hope that his fine will be substantial.
    How about a billion dollars.
    Folks with ‘power’ has always done thing because they believe they are above the law.
    It only goes to show that most/many of mankind can’t handle power.

    1. TZToronto September 3, 2017

      How about confiscating everything Trump has. If a case can be made that he’s running a criminal enterprise, why not?

  3. Thoughtopsy September 2, 2017

    President Racist pardons Sheriff Racist.
    Nice job, America.

  4. FireBaron September 4, 2017

    Not only was Sheriff Joe doing someone else job, he wasn’t doing the job he was elected to do – namely to enforce Arizona’s criminal law statutes. Maricopa had one of the highest percentages of uninvestigated reported crimes in the nation. His people were too busy stopping anyone who didn’t “look American” to investigate reports of rape, assault, B&E, robbery, etc. Oh, once in a while they would give lip service to a murder, especially if the victim was white or the murderer was not. The problem with those crimes is he really couldn’t keep them in HIS jail. They had to go to the State Prisons.


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