PHOENIX — Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s criminal trial opened Monday over his defiance of the courts in traffic patrols that targeted immigrants, marking the most aggressive effort to hold the former lawman of metro Phoenix accountable for tactics that critics say racially profiled Latinos.
In opening arguments, prosecutors cited news releases from Arpaio’s office and his comments in TV interviews bragging about immigration enforcement to prove their point that he should be found guilty of misdemeanor contempt of court.
“He thought he could get away with it,” prosecutor Victor Salgado said. “He never thought this day would come.”
Arpaio’s defense lawyer vigorously disputed that a person with nearly 60 years in law enforcement would violate a court order, putting the blame on a former attorney who gave bad legal advice.
The eight-day trial in federal court in Phoenix comes after the 85-year-old spent nine of his 24 years in office doing the sort of local immigration enforcement that President Donald Trump has advocated.
To build his highly touted deportation force, Trump is reviving a long-standing program that deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration law.
Arpaio’s lawyers say the former sheriff is charged with a crime for cooperating with U.S. immigration officials, which the Trump administration now encourages.
Arpaio’s legal troubles played a major role in voters turning him out of office in November after a campaign in which he appeared alongside Trump at several rallies in Arizona.
Now, Trump is in office and Arpaio is on trial.
If convicted, Arpaio could face up to six months in jail, though lawyers who have followed his case doubt that a man of his age would be put behind bars.
The former six-term sheriff of metro Phoenix has acknowledged defying a judge’s 2011 order in a racial profiling lawsuit by prolonging the patrols for months. But he insists it was not intentional. To win a conviction, prosecutors must prove he violated the order on purpose.
Unlike other local police leaders who left immigration enforcement to U.S. authorities, Arpaio made hundreds of arrests in traffic patrols that sought out immigrants and business raids in which his officers targeted immigrants who used fraudulent IDs to get jobs.
His immigration powers were eventually stripped away by the courts and federal government, culminating with a judge ruling in 2013 that Arpaio’s officers racially profiled Latinos.
Arpaio’s defense centers around what his attorneys said were weaknesses in the court order that failed to acknowledge times when deputies would detain immigrants and later hand them over to federal authorities.
“He followed the law as the law exists,” said Dennis Wilenchik, Arpaio’s lead attorney.
Prosecutors are seeking to use Arpaio’s own words against him in their case.
The sheriff’s office issued a news release a week after the judge told it to stop the patrols saying it would continue to enforce immigration laws. Arpaio also gave a March 2012 TV interview in which he said his office was still detaining immigrants who were in the country illegally.
The retired lawman lost a request to prohibit prosecutors from mentioning comments he made about immigration during his last three campaigns.
He also lost a last-ditch effort to let a jury instead of a judge decide whether he is guilty, with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejecting the request.
It’s not known whether Arpaio will testify in his defense.