PHOENIX — 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.
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.