An all-out showdown could be in the works today over whether one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s officers will apologize for taking an attorney’s confidential files.
It all goes back to an Oct. 19 incident in which Maricopa County detention officer Adam Stoddard was caught on a courtroom security video swiping a document from the files of a defense attorney while her back was turned.
Superior Court Judget Gary Donahoe has since ordered the detention officer to hold a news conference to apologize for taking the document. If he refuses to do so by the deadline – set for today – Donahoe said he would throw the officer in jail for contempt of court.
On Sunday, an attorney for the sheriff’s office told Heat City there is still no apology in the works today. But deputy county attorney Tom Liddy also said Arpaio’s office is considering “an announcement” instead.
He declined to say what the announcement might be, but added: “There are over a thousand possibilities.”
“It should not be read by you or anyone else that he’s going to apologize,” Liddy said.
Earlier this month, Arpaio vowed that his young officer would not abide by the ruling, saying, “Superior Court judges do not order my officers to hold press conferences.”
That same day, Liddy announced the sheriff’s office planned to ask the Arizona Court of Appeals to intervene in the case. But as of Sunday night, Liddy had not yet filed the appeal.
On Wednesday, the sheriff’s office asked Donahoe to delay the deadline for the apology so the appeal could still be filed. But so far, no delay has been granted.
The paperwork for the sheriff’s request, obtained Sunday night, shows private attorney Michele Iafrate joined the office in asking for the delay. Iafrate has done contract legal work for the sheriff’s office in the past, but it’s not clear this time whether she is working on the public dime or independently for Stoddard.
Even with the Phoenix area’s unusual politics and bizarre history, the events leading up to today create a scenario unlike any the region has seen in quite some time – if ever.
For one, it sets up the possibility that Stoddard could ignore Donahoe’s order outright and force the judge to send him to jail for contempt of court. The jailing of an active member of law enforcement in Maricopa County is unprecedented in recent memory.
It also raises the question of whether Arpaio, who runs the county jails and has balked at the judge’s order, would agree to lock up one of his own men. If he refuses, Donahoe could take the extraordinary step of asking another agency to step in or else go another route entirely. It’s anybody’s guess.
The whole uproar began in mid-October when public defender Joanne Cuccia was speaking in court during the sentencing of a client. As she had her back turned to the defense table, Stoddard walked up behind her, leaned over the table and pulled a document from her confidential files. The whole thing was caught on a courtroom security camera, and soon the incident went viral on YouTube. (See video below.)
During several days of testimony afterward, Stoddard said he happened to have glanced at the file and saw the words “going to,” “steal” and “money” together in a sentence. It made him think a crime was taking place and gave him authority to pull the document, he said.
But on Nov. 17, Donahoe rejected Stoddard’s story, saying there was no way “a reasonable detention officer” would have thought a crime was taking place based on what he saw. He found Stoddard in contempt of court and ordered him to apologize during a news conference on the plaza of the downtown Phoenix courthouse.
Craig Mehrens, a veteran attorney now representing Cuccia, said anything’s possible with today’s deadline. “I have no idea,” he said with a slight laugh Sunday night. “I don’t know what their plans are.”
Mehrens said he expects Donahoe will issue a civil arrest warrant if Stoddard does not apologize by the deadline, which is currently set for the end of the day. However, there is no road map for what comes next.
“What’s not unprecedented is Sheriff Arpaio’s complete disregard and complete disrespect for the the Superior Court bench,” Mehrens said.
What complicates the matter even further is that Donahoe amended his original ruling in the case a week ago. In the first ruling, he said it was up to defense attorney to decide whether the detention officer’s apology was sincere. It essentially put Stoddard’s fate in the hands of the woman he wronged.
But in a following ruling published Nov. 23, Donahoe said he realized that provision was against state law. He changed his ruling to force Stoddard to decide whether he wants to apologize or go to jail. The “keys to the jail house door” are with the detention officer, Donahoe said.
Courtroom video of the Oct. 19 incident: