Arizona sheriff tries to head off contempt of court hearing

Arizona sheriff tries to head off contempt of court hearing
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone (Source: Associated Press)

PHOENIX (AP) — Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is trying to stave off a possible civil contempt of court hearing in the same racial profiling case that led to contempt rulings against his predecessor, Joe Arpaio.

In a filing Wednesday, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office urged a federal judge against holding a contempt hearing over Penzone’s backlog of more than 1,700 internal affairs cases, each taking an average of 500 days to complete.

Penzone’s attorneys said the agency made warnings about the backlog to officials who are monitoring compliance with a court-ordered overhaul of its internal affairs operation, but its suggestions for fixing the problem were rejected.

Penzone’s attorneys said the agency is committed to complying with the overhaul and that its efforts to close those cases were outpaced by an increasing number of new complaints, including 1,200 filed in 2020. “Sanctions will not help reduce the caseload,” Penzone’s lawyers wrote.

The sheriff’s office lost some of its autonomy to investigate officer misconduct allegations in Arpaio’s final year in office after the judge presiding over the profiling case concluded the agency’s officer misconduct investigations were fraught with biased decision-making.

Arpaio was found in both civil and criminal contempt in the profiling case for disobeying a 2011 court order to stop his immigration patrols, though his misdemeanor conviction was pardoned by then-President Donald Trump.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department and attorneys who filed the profiling lawsuit asked Judge Murray Snow to schedule a contempt hearing for Penzone, arguing the sheriff is out of compliance with a requirement that internal investigations be completed within 60 or 85 days, depending upon which operation within the sheriff’s office handles the cases.

The attorneys argued that the length of the investigations has resulted in lost evidence that makes it more likely that officer misconduct won’t be confronted. They also pointed out that a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the sheriff’s office has said it’s questionable whether it should encourage people to file complaints when the process is so flawed, according to court records.

Penzone has said his office’s suggestions in the past for confronting the problem — such as allowing a statute of limitations on complaints and closing cases in which the subject of the investigation is dead or no longer working for the sheriff’s office — were rejected by the attorneys who brought the profiling case.

Earlier this year, the agency proposed giving its internal affairs commander the discretion to close cases in which the person making the complaint is noncooperative and to decline to investigate misconduct claims that are more than six months old or made against former sheriff’s employees. Penzone’s lawyers said doing so could reduce the caseload by nearly 30%.

In the past, Penzone has said the sheriff’s office, unlike other police agencies, doesn’t have the option of treating minor violations differently than serious misconduct.

It’s unclear what sort of penalties Penzone could face if the court agreed to hold a hearing and finds him in civil contempt. Generally, the punishments for civil contempt are fines, though on rare occasions jail time is given to those who refuse a judge’s order to provide information or take action.

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