America’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff is not going to be able to turn his jail webcams back on, at least not now — and likely never, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The majority of a three judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio violated the constitutional rights of those locked up while awaiting trial by making their activities available to all on the World Wide Web. The judges said the broadcast "constitutes a level of humiliation that almost anyone would regard as profoundly undesirable and strive to avoid."
Friday’s ruling leaves in place an injunction issued last year against the use of the webcams. Technically, it still gives Arpaio a chance to prove to a court after a full-blown trial that there is nothing inherently illegal about their use.
But Judge Richard Paez, writing for the majority, said the evidence suggests the former inmates who sued likely will prevail at that time.
The decision drew fire from Arpaio who vowed to appeal.
He said the broadcasts on the Web site — which have since been shut down due to lack of outside financial support — provide a necessary window for the public to see what is going on in the facility.
"I’m tired of the critics out there accusing my officers of being very vicious to inmates as they come into intake," he said. "I want the whole world to see my officers conducting themselves with these inmates."
And Judge Carlos Bea, in his dissent, agreed that Arpaio had a legitimate purpose for the webcams: Deterring those on the outside from engaging in criminal conduct which might land them behind bars — and on the computer screens of people around the world.
Paez, however, was not buying those arguments.
"We fail to see how turning pretrial detainees into the unwilling objects of the latest reality show serves any of these legitimate goals," he said.
Anyway, the judge continued, broadcasting the images around the globe "is not rationally connected to goals associated with educating the citizenry of Maricopa County."
Arpaio installed four webcams in July 2000 in the intake area of the Madison Street Jail where people are booked.
One of them, at least briefly, was in an area which showed the toilet of a women’s holding cell.
The sheriff arranged for a Web site called Crime.com to distribute the images, at its expense, in real time.
Within the first few days, the site recorded 6 million hits, with viewers as far away as Sweden, Britain and Germany.
The site was shut down before 24 former inmates filed suit. Despite that, the appellate court said the case was not moot because Arpaio could opt to reactivate the cameras in the future.
Paez, in the majority ruling, said people who have not yet been found guilty of anything may not be punished.
But he said that the inmates whose images appeared on the Web were harmed.
"Having every moment of one’s daily activities exposed to general and worldwide scrutiny would make anyone uncomfortable," he wrote.
The judge said the fact that inmates are being observed by jail staff and others who are incarcerated is immaterial.
"The discomfort of a detainee of having her children, for example, watch her while she is being detained is incalculably greater than having jail guards watch the same procedure," Paez said.
But Arpaio said putting the pictures on the Internet is no different than providing booking photos to the media of people who are only charged with crimes.
And he said it also is no different than when his office furnishes copies of the videotapes made internally to reporters who make public records requests.
In fact, the sheriff said, if the court ruling stands he will stop making those videos available.