'Toughest sheriff in America' under fire for warrantless arrests of critics in the middle of the night

Joe Arpaio (Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP)
Self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” is facing a lawsuit for ordering police to break into the homes of two journalists and arresting them in the middle of the night.

The Phoenix New Times paper has long been a critical of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose questionable actions have included organizing detention facilities for illegal immigrants that some have compared to Nazi concentration camps.  Apparently Arpaio got so annoyed with their criticism that he issued a subpoena demanding the newspaper to give up its sources. The subpoena, issued by Arpaio's office, “demanded that the paper reveal its confidential sources as well as produce reporters’ and editors’ notebooks, memoranda, and documents.” When newspaper co-owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin refused to follow through, though, they received a surprise visit.  Both men were arrested in the middle of the night in their own homes by sheriff's deputies and accused of a misdemeanor. Law enforcement didn't even bother to obtain a warrant for the arrest, however, so needless to say the charges were dropped the next day.

The sheriff is now facing a lawsuit for violating constitutionally-protected free speech by ordering the arrest of the two news executives in 2007.

“Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s arrest and jailing of journalists is part of a pattern of trying to silence critics,” Lacey told the Huffington Post. “It is an outrageous abuse of power. But he loves the publicity, even when it backfires. Arpaio relishes law enforcement by headlines. Today he rounds up Mexicans. Tomorrow’s target is anybody’s guess.”

Although charges were dropped, Lacey and Larkin sued the sheriff for violating their freedom of speech. The newspaper co-owners also argued that they had been falsely arrested and targeted for selective prosecution.

On Wednesday, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the newspaper executives could sue the sheriff for their arrests without a warrant.

Lacey and Larkin had tried to sue Arpaio for $15 million in 2008, but it was dismissed. The federal appeals court overturned the ruling.

“Sheriff Arpaio should have known that arresting someone at his home requires a warrant, unless there are exigent circumstances,” the appeals court opinion said. “We cannot fathom what exigent circumstances compelled either arrest.”

The lawsuit is the second one facing Arpaio. He is already being sued by civil rights groups for racially profiling members of his department. He has also become notorious for using racial profiling to target undocumented immigrants in Arizona. Under Arpaio, immigrants in the county jail were also frequently called “stupid” or addressed with a coarse ethnic slur, the New York Times reported earlier this year. Arpaio is also known for forcing his jailers to wear pink underwear, march four blocks wearing nothing but boxers and flip-flops, and forcing his detainees to sleep outside in tents and eat green bologna sandwiches.

Aside from the inhumane treatment, the sheriff also played a significant role in the “birther” debate, accusing President Obama of lying about his nationality. Investigators working for Arpaio  claimed that President Obama’s birth certificate, released in April 2011 is positively fake, making the sheriff one of the most influential figures in the “birther” movement.

To top off the list, the sheriff’s deputy, Alfredo Navarette, and two female detention officers, were found to have been involved in a Phoenix-based drug smuggling ring, involving heroin produced in Mexico. Navarette admitted to sharing information about the sheriff’s crime-prevention operations to drug smugglers bringing heroin across the border.

The sheriff is currently in Tampa for the Republican National Convention and declined to respond to Bloomberg News’ request for comment regarding the most recent lawsuit he faces.

New Timeseditor-in-chief Rick Barrs said Arpaio will now “have to answer for [the false arrest] in court,” bringing the sheriff back into the spotlight for yet another act of corruption.