Stopping Maricopa County’s abuses of power - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Stopping Maricopa County’s abuses of power

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Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2010 10:15 am | Updated: 3:26 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Dave Wells: In countries like Iran we regularly see dissent brutally crushed and political enemies jailed. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas are behaving in similar fashion.

In countries like Iran we regularly see dissent brutally crushed and political enemies jailed. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas are behaving in similar fashion. That’s why a federal grand jury is investigating Arpaio.

Arpaio and Thomas use their popularity and the cover of law to embark on a reign of legal intimidation. Except that, unlike Iran, they ultimately may be restrained by the very oath they are breaking — that of upholding the U.S. Constitution and “to impartially discharge the duties of the office.”

Dave Wells

The list of political opponents and retribution keeps growing. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, an outspoken Arpaio critic, was visited by sheriff’s deputies. County supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox are under questionable indictments. When Wilcox’s attorney, Colin Campbell, publicly rebuked the charges, he too was visited by sheriff’s deputies.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who might logically step in, is also a target of investigation by the sheriff and county attorney.

An earlier indictment against Stapley already has been thrown out.

Meanwhile, Thomas and Arpaio have filed a lawsuit against Superior Court judges, suggesting a conspiracy against them and their prosecutions.

The lawsuit named all five members of the board of supervisors, along with County Manager David Smith; Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson; four Maricopa County Superior Court judges; the director of the county’s civil-litigation division; two attorneys and a law firm. Days later, Thomas went further, filing criminal charges against Gary Donahoe, presiding criminal judge of the Superior Court, accusing him of hindering prosecution, obstructing a criminal investigation and bribery.

At about the same time, after a sheriff’s deputy had clearly violated an attorney-client privilege and refused to acknowledge his mistake to the judge, rather than reprimanding him for improper conduct, the sheriff applauded him, while encouraging his deputies in a protest and sick-out, even though it undermined court functioning and safety.

All of which led to public censure from Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, a conservative Republican whom Thomas had handpicked to prosecute earlier charges against Stapley. In a Dec. 21 opinion in the Arizona Republic, Polk said, “I can no longer sit by quietly and watch from a distance the abuses of power by Sheriff Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas.” Arpaio’s chief deputy, David Hendershott, shot back, suggesting the FBI investigate Polk.

Citizen activists who earlier criticized the sheriff’s office at Maricopa County supervisor meetings have been arrested while peacefully standing outside the premises, and, in a separate case, for applauding during public comments. In the first case, Randy Parraz, of Maricopa County Citizens for Safety and Accountability, was shackled as if he’d committed a violent crime. The county attorney’s office treated both cases as major crimes, appointing a top prosecutor and pursuing charges fully. Eight months later at trial, in acquitting the defendants, Downtown Justice Court Justice of the Peace Armando Gandarilla said, “The prosecution was malicious and without probable cause,” and ordered the cash-strapped county to pay the defendants’ legal fees.

As federal civil-rights case Ortega Melendres vs. Arpaio moves forward, we’ll find out whether U.S. citizens improperly arrested during immigration-violations sweeps by the sheriff’s office had their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures violated, and whether the sheriff’s office has systematically engaged in racial profiling. The sheriff, in a recently released deposition in the case, indicated a limited understanding of the Fourth Amendment and said he had not pursued staff training to avoid racial profiling.

Ultimately, the courts and federal government can help check these abuses of power. But the most important check lies at the ballot box.

After being handily re-elected in 2008, we have to wonder whether, next time around, voters will give Arpaio and Thomas their pink slips.

Dave Wells holds a doctorate in political economy and public policy and teaches at Arizona State University. He can be reached at

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