Joe Arpaio and Abuse of Power

Here in Phoenix we have a sheriff named Joe Arpaio.  Sheriff Joe, as sensitive to building his media image as he is to fighting crime, has built himself a reputation among the majority of voters that he is a tough-on-crime code-of-the-west kind of guy.  As the Phoenix New Times describes his image:

While voters lapped up the sheriff's harsh approach to inmates in his
jails "” from forcing them to wear pink underwear, to feeding them
oxidized, green bologna, to working them in chain gangs, to housing
inmates in tents "” New Times
writers pointed out that the cruelty and violence in Arpaio's lockups
prompted Amnesty International's first investigation in America.

I, however, see Sheriff Joe as a shameless self-promoter, uncaring about basic civil rights, and a serial abuser of government power.  A number of Phoenix New Times (our free alt-weekly) reporters have been on Arpaio's ass for years, dogging him in the best tradition of American media trying to hold public officials accountable.

In 2004, during an election cycle, reporter John Dougherty found that Arpaio had over a million dollars of investments in commercial real estate parcels.  Dougherty asked the question, how does a lifetime public official making $78,000 a year have so much real estate?  Arpaio could have replied that his family was independently wealthy or that he had parlayed his real estate investment from rags to riches.  Instead, Arpaio used an obscure law aimed at protecting the home addresses of government officials to remove access to any public records of his commercial real estate transactions at the same time he removed his home address from these data bases.  Instead of explaining where the money came from, he used his power to cover his tracks.

The cool thing about alt-weeklies is that they are feisty in a way that major newspapers used to be but are no longer.  The paper responded by publishing Arpaio's home address in an editorial.  Ill-considered?  Perhaps, but the paper pointed to several public web site where Arpaio's home address was already published, including several government sites.  Their point:  Arpaio's concern about his home address was a smokescreen to mask the fact he was really trying to remove the records of his real estate investments.  If he had really been concerned about his home address being public, he would have removed it from all the other sites it appeared on, not just the data base he wished to purge of his commercial investments.  [update:  the law apparently bars publishing the address on the Internet, but not in other media.  The New Times is legally OK for publishing it in their print edition, but technically broke the law by having that print edition also appear on the web]

Joe Arpaio is never one to just "move on."  In response to the paper's editorial, Joe Arpaio used the full force of his public office to form a grand jury to investigate the Phoenix New Times.  Via the grand jury, his prosecutor-buddy has slapped a really amazing subpoena on this small newspaper.  This first part is bad enough:

In a breathtaking abuse of the United States Constitution, Sheriff Joe
Arpaio, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, and their increasingly
unhinged cat's paw, special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik, used the grand
jury to subpoena "all documents related to articles and other content
published by Phoenix New Times newspaper in print and on the Phoenix
New Times website, regarding Sheriff Joe Arpaio from January 1, 2004 to
the present."

Pretty broad scope, huh?  If the case were really about whether the paper broke any laws by publishing his address, they would just subpoena that particular editorial.  But this case appears to be about a lot more, specifically a chance by Sheriff Joe to finally punish the New Times for years of critical reporting.  But the subpoena goes even further, into total la-la land:

The subpoena demands: "Any and all documents containing a compilation
of aggregate information about the Phoenix New Times Web site created
or prepared from January 1, 2004 to the present, including but not
limited to :

A) which pages visitors access or visit on the Phoenix New Times website;


B) the total number of visitors to the Phoenix New Times website;


C) information obtained from 'cookies,' including, but not limited to,
authentication, tracking, and maintaining specific information about
users (site preferences, contents of electronic shopping carts, etc.);

D) the Internet Protocol address of anyone that accesses the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;


E) the domain name of anyone that has accessed the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;


F) the website a user visited prior to coming to the Phoenix New Times website;


G) the date and time of a visit by a user to the Phoenix New Times website;


H) the type of browser used by each visitor (Internet Explorer,
Mozilla, Netscape Navigator, Firefox, etc.) to the Phoenix New Times
website; and

I) the type of operating system used by each visitor to the Phoenix New Times website."

I am sorry to do this to you, but if you clicked through to the Phoenix New Times site via the links in this story, any personal information that is recoverable about you is now subject to this subpoena. 

For years I have argued against special privileges like shield laws for the press.  My point has always been that we should not create a special class of citizen with more or less rights.  And this case does not change my mind, for this reason:  We all should have protection against this kind of abusive and intrusive probing by a public official, not just the press.  The Phoenix New Times should not have to divulge the details of its readership, but neither should my blog or Jane Doe's MySpace page.  This kind of prosecutorial fishing expedition against a critic of a government official is not wrong because it is directed at the press; it is wrong because it is directed at any American.

Update:  I didn't get into all the really weird stuff.  For example, Joe Arpaio argued that publication of his home address was damaging because groups were out to assassinate him:

A Mexican drug cartel acting on behalf of the Minutemen through the
intercession of a pro-immigration rights radio talk show host intended
to assassinate Arpaio, according to a sheriff's office investigation
detailed on the front page of the Sunday, October 7, edition of the Arizona Republic.


Now just think about this for a second. The Minutemen hate Mexicans
sneaking across the border. They are even less fond if the Mexicans are
smuggling drugs.

And we are supposed to believe that the Minutemen, seldom associated
with unexplained stashes of bling, agreed to a $3 million assassination
fee and put 50 percent down?

And that this was brokered by Elias Bermudez, a talk radio host, former
mayor of Mexican border town San Luis Rio Colorado in Sonora, and an
outspoken critic of Sheriff Arpaio "” and, obviously, no fan of the

And a key linchpin in this comic book farce was a teenage girl in a
prep school in Hartford, Connecticut, who was an exchange student at
one point in San Luis. If the drug cartel needed to contact the
Minutemen "for any reason," they could use a particular e-mail address
. . . which, as the officers discovered, belonged to a kid in a private

And from the Arizona Republic, our mainstream paper that usually fawns over Arpaio:

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office spent an estimated $500,000
during the past six months protecting Joe Arpaio from an assassination
that supposedly was designed to cause a furor in the United States over
illegal immigration.

The convoluted plot, reported to police by a paid informant,
purportedly involved members of the Minuteman border group hiring a hit
squad from a Mexican drug cartel and using an outspoken
immigrant-rights advocate as their intermediary.

Sheriff's officials now acknowledge that virtually none of the information supplied by the source panned out.

I'm sorry, but the person who dreams this stuff up has a huge burden of proof to even argue that he is sane, much less should be our sheriff.  The Minutemen love Sheriff Joe -- they are peas in a pod.  They believe many of the same things.  The odds they would be trying to assassinate him are ZERO.  By the way, this is not the first time Arpaio dreamed up an assassination plot:

in 2003 ... prosecutors took hapless James Saville to trial for
"plotting" to kill Arpaio. Jurors wound up deciding that deputies set
up the assassin, coaxing and entrapping him. Saville was acquitted ("The Plot to Assassinate Arpaio," August 5, 1999).

Then there was the time Arpaio identified a threat upon his life that
turned out to be an art student's sculpture of a spider left upon his

Update:  Joe Arpaio has arrested the owners of the Phoenix New Times paper for revealing the contents of the subpoena.


  1. Ray:

    So perhaps this law that lets the Sheriff do what he's doing should be done away with. But you can't blame the man for making use of it if it's there...

    If getting a little testy with the media is this man's biggest sin (and I'm sure the media always stays legal when trying to dig up dirt on him right?), I'll take that in exchange for having someone out there in law enforcement actually being tough on illegal immigration.

  2. Larry Sheldon:

    I'll bet Ray thinks Nifong is a fine fellow.

    I for one am not in favor of people who ride rough-shod over basic rights being allowed to carry loaded weapons.

  3. atr:

    For years I have argued against special privileges like shield laws for the press. My point has always been that we should not create a special class of citizen with more or less rights. And this case does not change my mind, for this reason: We all should have protection against this kind of abusive and intrusive probing by a public official, not just the press.

    Your logic here is common but I think very flawed, because the "special privileges" to which you refer are merely negative liberties to which we are all entitled as human beings. In the context of press shield laws, we're really considering which of two possible scenarios is more desirable:

    Option A: No one has "special privileges." I.e., everyone may be subject to state threats of violence in the form of subpoenas. (But for the judiciary's super-legal status, we can clearly see that (legally) the power to compel testimony violates at least the spirit of the First Amendment (free speech, not merely free press). And the power to compel disclosure of documents violates at least the spirit of the 4th Amendment (unreasonable search/seizure), without even analyzing the question of whether it also violates the 5th Amendment (due process before being deprived of property or liberty).)

    Option B: Everyone except a select minority (the press) is subject to state threats of violence. I.e., there are fewer people the government is allowed to victimize.

    I can conceive of a consequentialist argument in favor of Option A, based on the rationale that in the long run it's likely to lead to fewer threats/acts of violence, if only because the press will be an effective advocate against "subpoena abuse" in general. But how could such speculative benefits outweigh real harm and suffering? I am not a member of the press, I hope it succeeds in obtaining these "special privileges," and I will not begrudge members of the press their liberty if they do succeed. To argue otherwise seems to me like a slave opposed to the escape of a colleague.

    A final point: The notion of a world or nation lacking any "special class of citizen with more or less rights" is illusory. What I want, and what I think you want, is to maximize the rights of the people overall. Each individual's increased liberty brings us closer to that destination, and should be celebrated. (Liberty's not zero-sum, is it? Would immunizing the press from subpoenas make you less free? Cutting taxes in France? Legalizing trade between Americans and Cubans? Please tell me you don't want New Hampshire to impose a general sales tax so shoppers there won't continue to enjoy the "special privilege" of free trade--so that vendors and consumers in New Hampshire will no longer be treated as a "special class of citizen with more rights" than other Americans.) Whatever sentimentality I have for the concept of equality, for me it remains subordinate to the value of liberty.

  4. Max:

    Don't you people have elections?

  5. Ian Random:

    I'm trying hard here to see what's wrong with Joe Arpaio's behavior. He seems to be treating the inmates better than the enlightened glorious multicultural third world country to the south. I remember growing up in Kalifurna and eating nitrate free hotdogs in the school lunch. They looked pretty gross. The nitrate makes the hotdogs pink otherwise they look kinda green.

    Is it the money? Does his office require financial disclosure like the presidency? If I didn't, I'd resist that invasion of my right to privacy. My understanding is that most law enforcement types don't want their addresses disclosed. Have you been to a courthouse lately, it's like the airport. I suspect it has to do with angry people wanting to violently vent their frustration any way possible.

    As for the subpoenas, it sounds a bit ridiculous like some sort of RIAA/MPAA style attack. But hey our wonderful legal system allows someone who fell in a mall, to sue every business in the mall without any repercussions. As for the entrapment, I have seen footage of cops arresting people seeking hired killers, I don't see what's wrong with that. So if he stinks that bad, he should be easy to unseat.

  6. dearieme:

    Why isn't the Sheriff running for President? Some folks might think that he sounds as mad as Rudi and as bent as Hilly and that they'd like that.

  7. Dustin:

    You could tell me that Sheriff Joe eats puppies for breakfast and I'd still love the guy. I live in Phoenix and am quite familiar with the Phoenix New Times. When you refer to it as an alt paper I assume you are referring to it as an alternative to any truth. It's worse than the Arizona Republic.

  8. markm:

    atr: And once the "press" obtains these privileges, who decides who is "press" and who isn't?

  9. atr:

    atr: And once the "press" obtains these privileges, who decides who is "press" and who isn't?

    Answer: The government. Yes, the government in one way or another will decide who gets to escape its control in this one area. The net result will be that fewer people will be subject to this form of rights violation.

    I really think this is beside the point. If some people get to enjoy freedom from forced speech and forced disclosure of property, isn't that a good thing?

  10. riffic:

    I'm sure Sheriff Joe Arpaio would love a postcard with your comments, be sure to send these to:
    12808 N Via Del Sol, Fountain Hills, AZ 85268.
    By the way, isn't it a lovely neighborhood the good sheriff lives in?

  11. Dustin:

    @ riffic...

    Please post your address so that we can meet and discuss why you don't mind transparency in all public discourse. I look forward to meeting you and having a rational discussion.

  12. Al Fin:

    Sheriff Joe isn't so bad by historical standards. The PC american standards are about to crash and burn because the western world can't afford to treat violent criminals with kid gloves any longer.

    During the days of England's grandest empire, transport to the colonies was a common penalty for many crimes. The result was that the colonies were populated by strong colonists (those who survived the arduous journey) and order was maintained at home for king and country

    Where would Sheriff Joe transport his bad boys? My preference is a penal colony on Mars. They could escape the facility, certainly, but the atmosphere there is a bit thin. Perhaps escapees could adapt .....?

    Modern day England has descended so far into PC pussitude that the English jail people who shoot home intruders. Criminals are treated more fairly than ordinary citizens. Granted, Sheriff Joe is a distinct improvement on such appeasers of violence as modern day English judges and police. But how much better things would be if we were to bring back transport of convicts.

  13. video:

    Followup, Oct 20.

    "A criminal case against Phoenix New Times fell apart Friday amid a crush of public outrage and admissions that a special county prosecutor made serious mistakes.

    "Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas dismissed all charges against the free weekly newspaper less than 24 hours after two New Times owners were arrested..."

    So the Kindly Officer Joe Arpiao thought he could just make up charges out of whole cloth and have anyone jailed on his "good" word? Too bad so MANY cops are like that, when they think no one is looking. Y'a pas plus menteur qu'une police. Arpiao is par for the course. With any luck, Arpiao will be out on the chain gang himself, wearing pink, for getting caught in (just one) of the many lies he's told in an official capacity. Here's to that heart-warming thought.

  14. BECCA:

    I for one, am a fan of Arpiao's tactics. As the wife of Correctional Officer in a FEDERAL MAXIMUM SECURITY USP I know that the system is far too easy on offenders. If those in MAX SECURITY have so many luxuries and are treated with kid gloves, i can only imagine the vacation that non violent criminal have in jail. I, for one, am tired of my tax dollars going to coddling people who want to break laws. Please spare me the Liberal-tolerant BS that i have been hearing in regards to Joe's tactics. It is a shame when a criminal's "rights" are put above the safety of those put in a postion of law enforcement. there have been several incidents where the inmates have used some of those luxeries (made available to them by those who feel that inmates are "just misunderstood" or "just need a hug" ) in order to assault and injure the officers in their facilities. I for one believe that a punishment should be a punishment and for the reporters that want to endanger Apriao's safety by publishing his address. Maybe you should spend a day with some of those who are being treated so "inhumane" and see if they wouldnt stab you in the back for even a Snickers Bar.

  15. Russell:

    It is really nice to hear all the comments from supporters and detractors of Sheriff Joe. The fact of the matter is, He works for us!

    Law enforcement has always been predicated on the values that they should serve and protect the citizens of the United States. When did that philosophy lose it value. When did incarcerating people for making mistakes overshadow treatment and recovery? DUI inmates suffer from alcoholism............a disease! Why has Maricopa County cracked down on the offender without looking at directions for treatment and a cure for a well known, scientifically proven DISEASE? Reason: Because in a state with limited income from natural resources, or technology needs a way to make money from fines, and incarceration funds from the federal government.

    Why are people who use or possess Marijuana chastised as drug addicts when the federal government has allowed 20 states in the Union to disseminate it for medicinal purposes. Does the Sheriff in Arizona have the power to override the Feds?

    I firmly believe violent criminals, sex offenders, child abusers, and other murderers should be treated with the same disdain as they gave their victims. But does the average, everyday citizen who makes the mistake of driving home after happy hour, or smoking some pot to relieve a headache really deserve to be treated like a conviceted murderer. Sheriff Joe thinks all inmates should be treated equally. Is that logical?