Joe Arpaio | Photo by Evan Wyloge
Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Wednesday it will be a cold day in Maricopa County before one of his officers apologizes for taking an attorney’s confidential files.
He was responding to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe, who on Tuesday ordered a county detention officer to apologize for a bizarre incident in which he was caught on a courtroom security video sneaking a confidential document from a defense attorney’s file.
Donahoe ordered officer Adam Stoddard to hold a press conference before Dec. 1 to apologize to the attorney or else face jail time.
“Superior Court judges do not order my officers to hold press conferences,” Arpaio said in a news release. “I decide who holds press conferences and when they are held.”
An attorney for the sheriff, Tom Liddy, went even further, saying it’s unlikely Stoddard will go to jail for refusing to apologize. “Folks should not hold their breaths,” he said.
But the sheriff’s office, which runs the county jails, doesn’t plan to defy the order outright. Liddy said the agency will challenge it in a higher court.
The attorney said the order violates Stoddard’s rights to free speech.
The judge “cannot order somebody to lie,” Liddy said. “Of course he’s not sorry for doing his job…It’s absurd on his face.”
Liddy also said it violates Stoddard’s right to due process because he did not have a trial in front of a jury. “It’s the most bizarre thing that I’ve seen in my 14 years (of practicing law),” he said.
The whole uproar goes back to Oct. 19, when Stoddard was caught on a courtroom videotape taking a document from the file of public defender Joanne Cuccia.
The attorney was speaking before Superior Court Judge Lisa Flores during a sentencing of her client, Antonio Lozano, for assaulting a fellow inmate. Cuccia had her back turned to Stoddard when he walked up to the defense table, began reading a document and then pulled it from her file to have a copy made.
In the weeks since then, Donahoe, the county’s highest-ranking criminal judge, has ordered the sheriff’s office to explain why Stoddard believed he had the right to do that. After all, the files an attorney keeps are supposed to be protected by the attorney-client privilege, a near-sacred right in the legal community.
Stoddard told the judge he happened to glance down at the table when he saw four words – “going to,” “steal” and “money” – all grouped in the same sentence at the bottom of the document.
Because the defendant was a member of the Mexican Mafia, Stoddard said he thought Lozano might be passing coded messages to other gang members through his attorney.
But Donahoe rejected that story on Tuesday, saying in his order there’s no way “a reasonable detention officer” would read the document and think a crime was taking place.
Donahoe said Stoddard’s actions amounted to “misbehavior and harassment” of the defense attorney.
An attorney now representing Cuccia said she was “very pleased with the judge’s ruling.”
“My client was delighted that she was finally able to have someone, most importantly this judge, hold that she did nothing wrong,” said Craig Mehrens, a veteran Phoenix lawyer who has taken up Cuccia’s cause.
In more than 40 years practicing law, Mehrens said he has never heard of a judge forcing somebody to hold a news conference to apologize.
“But there’s a lot of things I haven’t heard of,” Mehrens said. “I’ve certainly heard of judges being very innovative on their rulings and do some things that some people might find out of the ordinary.”
Mehrens said he’s not surprised that Arpaio is fighting the order. Still, he said he found some of the sheriff’s rhetoric “just beyond the pale.”
As for Liddy’s contention that the order violates the detention officer’s right to due process, Mehrens said the sheriff’s attorney is going to have a tough time with that one. The judge cited case law that shows he has the right to throw an officer of the court in jail on a civil contempt charge without having to go through a jury.
Mehrens also pointed out that Stoddard and the sheriff’s office had three days worth of hearings in recent weeks to defend their actions. Yet they called no witnesses in their defense and mounted little explanation as to why Stoddard took the confidential document.
“What more due process does Mr. Liddy expect Mr. Stoddard to have?” Mehrens said.
Amid all the back-and-forth, the original sentencing of Lozano, the Mexican Mafia member, has been put on a holding pattern. It had been scheduled for a do-over on Wednesday, but earlier this week, the original judge pushed it back to Dec. 14.
Still, it’s uncertain whether the sentencing will even happen. Lozano’s new attorney, Maria Schaffer, said last week she plans to ask for the charges against him to be dropped in light of everything that’s happened. She declined to comment Wednesday about Donahoe’s ruling.
Courtroom video of the Oct. 19 incident: