PHOENIX (AP) — Prosecutors said Tuesday they will charge Sheriff Joe Arpaio with criminal contempt-of-court for defying a judge's orders to end his signature immigration patrols in Arizona, exposing the 84-year-old lawman to the possibility of jail time and clouding his political future as he seeks a seventh term.
The announcement in federal court sets in motion criminal proceedings against the sheriff less than a month before Election Day and comes as he has taken on a prominent role on the national political stage in 2016, appearing alongside Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on several occasions.
Arpaio has acknowledged violating the order to stop the immigration patrols but insists his disobedience wasn't intentional.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow previously recommended criminal contempt charges against Arpaio but left it up to federal prosecutors to actually bring the case.
Prosecutor John Keller said in court that the government will bring a misdemeanor contempt charge, with the next step being a court filing, possibly in the next day, that's akin to a criminal complaint.
Arpaio could face up to six months in jail if convicted of misdemeanor contempt.
Arpaio lawyer Mel McDonald said the sheriff will not be arrested and no mugshot will be taken. He will plead not guilty by court filing and hopes to prevail before a jury. Arpaio did not attend Tuesday's court hearing.
"We believe the sheriff, being an elected official, should be judged by his peers," McDonald said.
About 75 protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse. They wore shirts reading "Arrest Arpaio" and inflated a huge blow-up caricature of Arpaio dressed in a jail uniform.
Arpaio issued a statement saying he was confident he would be exonerated. He accused the Obama administration of trying to influence the sheriff's race.
"It is no coincidence that this announcement comes 28 days before the election and the day before early voting starts," Arpaio said. "It is a blatant abuse of power and the people of Maricopa County should be as outraged as I am."
Authorities were still considering a possible obstruction of justice charge against Arpaio that could result in more severe punishments, including losing his job.
The contempt case also focused on Arpaio's actions in carrying out what critics said was a secret investigation of Judge Snow in the case. Snow demanded Arpaio and the aide turn over 50 hard drives that were part of the probe, but they ignored the order.
Keller said the Justice Department cannot prosecute those allegations within the criminal contempt case because the one-year statute of limitations had run its course. But federal authorities will investigate the allegation as a possible obstruction of justice charge, Keller said.
Obstruction of justice is a felony that carries a punishment of 15 months to 37 months in prison and would bar Arpaio from office if he is convicted. Prosecutors did not give a timetable on when they would decide whether to bring an obstruction charge.
Prosecutors are also considering a possible obstruction charge against two Arpaio aides and a former attorney suspected of concealing nearly 1,500 IDs in an investigation into whether officers pocketed items during traffic stops.
The criminal contempt charge involving the immigration patrols will mark yet another defeat for the sheriff who became a national political figure over the past decade by aggressively carrying out immigration patrols and attention-getting endeavors. Among other things, he made prisoners wear pink underwear, put them on chain gangs and confined them in tents in stifling desert heat.
Following complaints by Latino drivers about racial profiling, a judge demanded that Arpaio stop the enforcement efforts. He was later found to have violated the order for 17 months, causing it to turn into a contempt of court case.
County taxpayers have shelled out $48 million so far in the profiling case, and the costs are expected to reach $72 million by next summer. The expenses and Arpaio's legal woes have become a centerpiece of his Democratic opponent's campaign, but they have not stopped Arpaio from amassing $12 million in campaign cash, most of it coming from out-of-state donors.
"No one is above the law, and today's announcement in court epitomizes the strength of the judicial system," Democratic opponent Paul Penzone said.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.